The Extraordinary Erbstein

The scene after a aircrash on the mountain of Superga,near the outskirts of Turin, which killed several members of Torino football club, including the team’s Hungarian-Jewish coach, Erno Erbstein in 1949.-GETTY IMAGES

Playing for the BAK club of Budapest in the early 1920s, Erno Erbstein subsequently managed to combine this with representing the Jewish Hakoah club of Arad, which, after the Great War, had been ceded to Romania. By Brian Glanville.

By a brutal irony, Erno Erbstein, who had escaped the butchers of Budapest in the dying days of World War II, was doomed to perish in the horrific Superga air crash of May 1949, when the aircraft carrying the triumphant Torino squad, back from a game in Lisbon, crashed into a hillside on which stood a basilica. None of the passengers survived. It was the end of the Torino team’s five-season domination of Italian football; and of the Hungarian-Jewish coach, who had done so much to mould them.

Erbstein, in fact, was in his second spell of running the Torino team. The first had come to an abrupt and bitter end in 1939 when Fascist Italy, by then, for all the posturing of the dictator Mussolini, was under the thumb of Hitler, finally adopting his anti-Semitic policy. So Erbstein lost his managerial job with Torino and prepared to take his wife and daughters to a new role in Holland, as manager of the Xerxes club of Rotterdam. They never got there.

When the train stopped at Kleve, just short of the Dutch border, a Nazi patrol entered the family’s carriage, demanded to see their passports, and when they read the word ‘Jew’ on each one, they tore up the Erbsteins’ passports, ignoring the Dutch visas, threw the pieces out of the train window and brutally dragged every member to the so-called Jew House, in the shape of an overcrowded apartment block.

There they remained for weeks till Erbstein, who had sewn diamonds into the linings of his clothes, used one of them to bribe a rapacious Nazi guard to allow him to make a phone call from a box up the road. From there he called his friend and mentor Ferruccio Novo, the President of the club he had recently left, Torino. A shocked Novo set wheels in motion.

He contacted the Hungarian Embassy, who demanded the Erbstein family be released and enabled to go to Budapest. To his credit, Ottorino Barassi, the chief of the Italian Football Federation, sent a strong request for the family’s release. So it was that they found themselves back in Budapest, where Erbstein had begun his football career as a rugged half back. All the other prisoners in that building would be murdered.

Dominic Bliss dramatically recounts this fearful episode in his remarkable book, ‘Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer’. His research is phenomenal, though as quite often happens when so much of it is done, you sometimes feel that everything, not least match after forgotten match, has been thrown in but the kitchen sink.

Not that Budapest with its notoriously endemic anti-Semitism would be a safe haven. 3000 Jews had been slaughtered in the counter revolution which followed World War I. Anti-Semitic legislation had recently been passed. Erbstein, who had been a young officer in the Hungarian army in that War, would soon be in danger with his family. Murderous bands of young neo-Fascists would stalk the streets of the city.

Yet this was the city where Erbstein had emerged as a footballer of solid, if somewhat ruthless, reputation and would blossom into an outstanding, original and successful coach. By contrast with his reputation as a hard player, he was as a coach and manager never a dictator, deriving his authority from his intense study of the game and its tactics.

Playing for the BAK club of Budapest in the early 1920s, he subsequently managed to combine this with representing the Jewish Hakoah club of Arad, which, after the Great War, had been ceded to Romania. He was once even chosen for the Romanian national squad but didn’t get a game. Nemzeti Sport newspaper of Budapest described him as a “solid massive player”, who’s broken an opponent’s leg in Arad.

What proved the turning points in his football career was when he was offered his first professional contract by the Olimoia club of Fiume, the much disputed Adriatic city, which by then had been virtually annexed by Fascist Italy. Impressive there, he moved at the end of the season to the Vicenza club, the beginning of his long Italian experience. He left Vicenza after a mediocre club season, returning to play in Budapest, but his fortunes would change when asked to captain a so-called Maccabi team in their tour to USA.

This it did in 1927 with much success, at a time when it even seemed that soccer would become a major American sport. Some of the teams, Maccabi met, used the third back game and ‘W’ formation deployed from 1925 by Herbert Chapman at Arsenal. Erno would deride the tactics, but a few years later in Italy, he would deploy them himself.

One last playing season in Budapest and recommended by Hungarian expats, he was off to manage the recently amalgamated Bari in South-East Italy. It would be the first of two spells there, and he quickly showed his tactical flair, abetted by his ability to find and often develop players of quality. From little Nocerina he went to Cagliari in Sardinia, back to Bari, but then most fruitfully to Lucchese in the beautiful Tuscan city of Lucca. In his five years there he transformed the club, but local Fascism forced him out.

Torino stepped in then, among the players who admired him was Raf Vallone, destined to become a film star. Erbstein’s highly original methods laid the basis for the post-War team and its triumphs. Forced by Fascism to leave Torino, he returned majestically in 1946 and improved, with his perceptive method, a team, which was already the champion of Italy.

In Budapest he and his family had barely survived as Hungarian Fascism ran riot. These pages are the most dramatic and suspenseful in the book. The Germans occupied Budapest. Over 400,000 Jews would die in the gas chambers, the murderous Nyilas roamed the city, butchering Jews and almost accounted for Erno’s wife and daughters. He himself was confined in a Jewish labour camp, where he had the amazing luck of encountering as one of the guards, a man who’d served under him in the Great War. He and his family would escape in time. But death had been very close.