COMMENT: The Eagles were beaten in the Europa League final by Chelsea last season but stand on the brink of ending a 52-year wait for European success
The Bela Guttmann curse is over 50 years old, but we will never know exactly what the great Hungarian coach once said.
The classic, most popular version claims that he decreed upon his acrimonious departure in 1962: "Not in 100 years from now will Benfica win a European Cup." The accuracy of that statement, however, is far from certain.
The reason for Guttmann’s abrupt exit from Lisbon was all about the Benfica management’s refusal to pay him a bonus for winning the European Cup twice in a row. Alternative theories say that he stated in an interview that it would be 100 years before another Portuguese team managed to win back-to-back European Cups.
Whichever account you choose to believe, all Guttmann’s predictions - real or fictional- have come true. The debt was never paid and European success has deserted the club ever since. The Eagles have reached the European Cup final on five occasions since Guttmann’s famous words and lost every time.
AC Milan dethroned them in 1963, Inter got the upper hand two years later, Matt Busby’s Manchester United won the famous Wembley final in extra-time in 1968, PSV took the title on penalties in 1988 and, finally, Milan were 1-0 winners in 1990.
That historic final took place in Vienna, where Guttmann - who died 33 years ago last month - is buried, and the great Eusebio went to pray on his grave beforehand, asking for the curse to be removed. It didn’t help.
Last season Benfica reached the final of the Europa League at the Amsterdam ArenA only to fall at the final hurdle, with Chelsea lifting the trophy after Branislav Ivanovic's injury-time winner sealed a 2-1 success.
Guttmann was an extremely controversial and colourful character. He enjoyed being the centre of attention, making bold decisions and audacious statements. Unlike his peers, his belief was that he should never stay in the same place for too long.
“A coach is like a lion tamer. He dominates the animals as long as he shows self-confidence and has no fear. But when the first hint of fear appears in his eyes, he is lost,” Guttmann used to say.
As for his employers, the Hungarian once stated: “During the first season, the coach gets to work quietly, the second is more difficult, and the third one is fatal."
Sixth time lucky? | Jorge Jesus will hope to end 52 years of European hurt
To be closer to truth, Guttmann almost never spent even two years at the same club. He became an eternal maverick, betraying or being betrayed almost every season.
In 22 years, between 1945 and 1967, he changed teams no less than 18 times. Whenever there was something not to his liking, he simply walked away to another project.
One of the first examples came at Romanian club Ciocanul, where Guttmann received his salary in vegetables due to food problems in the country. The president dared to think he could influence the team selection. “You’ve got the basics. Good luck!” Guttmann told him, and left immediately.
At Kispest, the biggest Hungarian club back in those post-war years, he had a difficult relationship with Ferenc Puskas, whose father he succeeded as coach. When the 'Galloping Major' attempted to convince a player to ignore his tactical instructions at half-time, the Hungarian simply went to the stands and took the tram home, never to return.
Probably his most bizarre statement arrived when AC Milan decided to sack him in 1955, even though the team were top of the league and playing great football. “I have been sacked, even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual,” Guttmann told journalists.
Though undoubtedly brash, he was a brilliant tactician. It would be fair to say he played a very important part in Brazil’s 1958 World Cup triumph, exporting his revolutionary 4-2-4 system to South America while working at Sao Paolo and leading them to the State Championship title.
But his greatest success came in Portugal, where he started out with Porto and won the league title in 1959, stealing it from Benfica late in the season.
|Guttmann became an eternal maverick, betraying or being betrayed almost every year.|
His next step was to leave and move to the club's fiercest rivals Benfica, where he won another two league crowns as well as those two European Cups. His attacking philosophy was extremely successful and he famously said: “I never mind if the opposition scores, because I always believe we can score more."
That is exactly what happened in the great 1962 final in Amsterdam, as Real Madrid led 2-0 and then 3-2 through a Puskas hat-trick, only for the Portuguese to win 5-3 thanks to Eusebio. After the final whistle, Puskas gave the Mozambique-born youngster his shirt in admiration.
Benfica were the only team in Guttmann’s career that he stayed with for three whole seasons. The Hungarian could have continued to build an empire similar to that of Real Madrid in the late 1950s, with Eusebio and Mario Coluna both worshipping him. But that was totally out of his character and he decided to attack his superiors, demanding that elusive bonus and delivering his curse.
"Not in 100 years from now will Benfica win the European Cup."
Fifty-two years on and Benfica stand just 90 minutes away from ending their European hoodoo. Jorge Jesus' team have reached the final playing an attacking style of football in a mould similar to that of Guttmann's great sides - but can they banish his ghost once and for all?