Benfica and the Curse of Bela by Michael S Collins

For someone who has been dead thirty-three years, Bela Guttman is a very bitter man.

Jon Arnold

Benfica are one of the most successful football clubs in the world. They have won their domestic Portuguese league thirty-three times, and the Portuguese Cup twenty-four times. Alongside European success in the distant past, it stands as one of the most glittering trophy cabinets in Europe, and many are jealous of that success. Yet, if you ask folk who work for the club, a sinister shadow lurks over them, which prevents greater success on a continental stage. For Benfica, they claim, are cursed.

But to get to the curse, we need to go back to the start. No, not as far as 1904, when a bunch of students formed this club. In the 1950s, Benfica had risen from that humble beginning to become a sporting institution (they have teams in many sports, includibg basketball and hockey, not just football) in the background of Salazar’s Portugal. They had high hopes of winning the European Cup, but come short against unstoppable Real Madrid in 1957.

Enter, in 1959, Bela Guttman. A Hungarian Jew who had won the Hungarian league title either side of a Second World War in which he spent hidden away from Hitler so well people still aren’t sure where he got to, Guttman had already gained a reputation at that point for mercurial success and a history of relationships souring. A man who had gained and lost a fortune in the Wall Street Crash, after leaving his native Hungary earlier due to an anti-Semitic leader. He also was not unknown for his random moments of eccentricism; as early as 1924, he responded to his own view that the Olympics hotel was not suitable, by hanging dead rats from the rooms of the Olympics officials. When people would ask his age – he was near 60 when he took over at Benfica – he would reply “24”. And his method of scouting players might not pass modern scrutiny; he discovered Eusebio, Benfica’s finest player, after a discussion at the local barber shop with a retired Brazilian international! He had a belief in the supremacy of the manager which has signs in the modern day Jose Mourinho, and installed a clause in all future contracts that he couldn’t be sacked if his club were top of the league, after that happened in Milan.

I never minded if the opposition scored, because I always thought we could score another.”
Bela Guttman

Not wary of courting controversy, he had even moved to Benfica from their bitter rivals Porto!

Some while ago, he said, Lucchese, then for a brief while a Serie A team from the beautiful Tuscan city of Lucca, were on their way by train to play the mighty Juventus in Turin. On the journey their manager, poor fellow died. The directors were thrown into a panic. How could any Italian team take the field without a manager on the bench? In desperation, they phoned all over the peninsula until they had found a manager, who arrived just in time to sit on the bench. Lucchese then proceeded against all the odds to hold Juventus to a draw, and the players carried the new coach off the field on their shoulders.”
Guttman’s anecdote about managing, told by Brian Glanville

Guttman was to lead Benfica to great success, but their greatest success together came in Europe. In 1961, they became the first side to win the European Cup not named Real Madrid. (Though not the first team to beat Real, that honour fell to their long time political, philosophical, theological, sociological and footballing nemesis, Barcelona.) In 1962, in the final they came up against Real themselves, and beat them to make it two European Cups. With a fine manager, and some great players – Eusebio and Mario Coluna, Benfica and Portugal captain to name but two – the future looked rosy for Benfica.

And so Bela Guttman asked for a pay raise. To be fair, he had every right to given his success, and had he been managing in the modern game, he’d have been making millions before you could say “Special One”. [And unlike Mourinho, Guttman was a proponent of the Danubian School of football philosophy, so maintained a healthy 4-2-4 attacking formation throughout his career…]

The Benfica board turned him down, and Guttman left the club.

And at this point, he is alleged to have put a curse on the club.

Never in a hundred years will Benfica ever be a European champion.”

Now, an alleged curse is one thing. What does it take for people to begin believing in it?

In 1963, they got to the European Cup final again. Despite taking the lead, they fell behind 2-1 and lost to AC Milan. Another final in 1965, and this time the loss was to Milan’s city and stadium sharing rivals, Inter. In 1968, another final, and in extra time at Wembley, and believing certain referee decisions had gone against them, Benfica went down 4-1 to Matt Busby’s Manchester United, undone by the majestic talents of George Best and Bobby Charlton. Famously, despite having the dogged Nobby Stiles marking him, Eusebio broke free of the United defence to find himself one on one with the goalkeeper… and the most natural goal scorer in Europe missed the most gilt edged chance of his career. It was 1-1 then, would have won the game. So three European finals in quick succession, and the manner of the third turned some minds.

Then in 1983, a UEFA Cup final. Hey, Guttman didn’t specify the smaller European trophies, just a European Cup. Benfica had manager Sven Goran-Eriksson, already with a fine reputation (though he was later to win the Italian title and manage England) and a great team. They are facing Anderlecht, with all due respect, not one of Europes shining lights. (Forever eccentric, Anderlecht of Brussels in Belgium are one of the handful of teams who have both won a European group stage 100% and lost one 100% in their history!) A nice way to take the pressure off, but Anderlecht won 1-0 at home, and drew the game in Portugal, and suddenly it was 4 lost finals.

In 1988, another European Cup final, against novices PSV Eindhoven of Holland. This time surely. Goalless game after a sterile match in which Benfica, perhaps done in by the ideas of curses and player suspensions, played ultra defensively. Every penalty was scored, so sudden death in the shootout came into play, and it was Benfica who missed. Five lost finals.

In 1990, Benfica reached another European Cup final, against Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side, one of the finest regarded in Europe. This time, Benfica were underdogs. (And owed a fortuitous handball to eliminating the much more fancied Marseille side in the Semifinals!) Benfica’s manager at this point was their previous tormenter, Sven-Goran.

But the words of Guttman hung in the air. Eusebio, long retired but still an ambassador for Benfica and Portuguese football, went to the grave of Bela Guttman (who had died in 1981) and prayed to Guttman for mercy, kneeling before his grave in Austria.

Well, for a while, it might have seemed it had worked. Benfica had all the pressing against Milan, their keeper held Marco Van Basten (Milans scorer extraordinaire) at bay, and had a number of chances but just couldn’t get the ball in the net. Then, Frank Rijkaard scored midway through the second half, and it was 1-0 Milan. That was the score at full time.

Guttman had not been appeased, clearly.

In 2013 and 2014 they have reached two more European finals, in the Europa League. In 2013, they took on Chelsea, dominated the proceedings, and lost 2-1 with the final goal coming in the last seconds of injury time. On the 14th May 2014, they took on Sevilla, overwhelming favourites to finally end the Curse of Bela, and yet couldn’t find a way past the Spanish defence and crumbled in the penalty shootout.

The current score, if you are keeping count at home, is Bela Guttman 8, Benfica 0.

Football curses aren’t unique to Benfica. Derby County removed a Romani settlement to build their new stadium in 1896. A curse on the FA Cup was allegedly placed on Derby, which enough folk began to believe in after they reached three finals (and six semifinals) in quick succession, losing each time. Before their FA Cup final in 1946, officials from Derby County met with the descendents of the removed people to beg forgiveness. During the final, at 1-1, the ball burst. A sign from elsewhere they’d been forgiven? Derby went onto win 4-1, the curse broken, and rarely spoken of again.

A similar curse in similar circumstances was alleged to have fallen on Birmingham City from 1906 to 2006. Manager Barry Fry once even peed in all four sections of the ground to try and ward off the curse. One might equally state though, that is more likely Birmingham City failed to win anything, because they were rubbish. Hibernian of Edinburgh, one of Scotlands biggest football clubs, have failed to win the Scottish Cup since 1902, and no one seriously claims they are cursed, except by the continued laughter of other football fans.

Though with Hibs, and more talk of Romani curses (were they walking around the countryside, randomly placing curses on football teams they found had interesting names in their Sports Almanac?) as they lost 10 Scottish Cup finals since that 1902 victory, the event seems psychological in nature. That said, they even got some nuns to wash their strips before the 2012 final, hoping for some Holy intervention, and lost 5-1. Clearly God was busy, has a great sense of humour, or was a Hearts fan.

I don’t really believe in curses. I do however believe that people who believe in being cursed are likely to fall into self-prophecy. And to be honest, I kind of get the impression Guttman knew that too. Benfica wont continue to lose because they are cursed. They will continue to lose because they think a long dead manager is cursing them. As seen by their finest player praying at the grave, and them mentioning it each European final, Benfica football club seem to believe in the curse. And that trickles down into each successive manager and player. Benfica have even unveiled a statue to their former manager outside their stadium, to no avail on the curse front.

“”Every year when Benfica plays in the Europe they try to get rid of the curse. Any time that Benfica play near Guttmann’s grave, somebody will take flowers. It hasn’t worked.”

Jose Carlos Soares (journalist) to CNN

Ah, but the devils in the detail. For Guttman was also to have claimed “no Portugese side would win two European Cups” in the same hundred years. Porto, clearly not caring for curses, won the European Cup in 1987 and 2004. Rather than the ghostly influence of a bitter Hungarian, one might suggest the ghastly influence of a well placed mind game.

Guttman died, aged 82, in 1981. Both Eusebio and Mario Coluna died the year this was written (2014).

In the last decade (barring 2009) Benfica have been one of the most recurringly successful sides in Europe not to win a European trophy. Barring the aforementioned 2009 debacle, they have reached the last 16 at worst in European competition since 2004. They have reached seven quarterfinals, three semifinals and two finals. They keep meeting a final roadblock, the fates seeming against them. Maybe it’s psychological.

Maybe it’s the ghost of Bela Guttman making sure his old score is settled, even now.

But if so they shouldn’t worry too much.

After all, only forty-eight years left to go…