BY MARK GODFREY
For anybody familiar with the tragedy of the Superga air crash in 1949 that wiped out the entire fabled Torino side that had dominated Italian football for most of that decade, there is no spoiler alert when I declare that the man who inspired this fine book by Dominic Bliss – Erno Egri Erbstein – dies in the end. And even if you aren’t aware of it, don’t let that fact get in the way of you picking up this book and reading it cover to cover.
Five years in the making, following some truly commendable levels of research by the author, Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Italian football’s forgotten pioneer examines the incredible life of a man who lived through the most turbulent times of the 20th century, carving out a reputation in football that shamefully seemed to evaporate after his death when he should be celebrated just as highly as any of his contemporaries.
A Hungarian Jew born in the late 19th century, Erbstein’s lot in life was sealed. Always at the mercy of anti-Semitism and rising Fascism across central Europe, his early football career, as an honest, but uncompromising player, was fairly unremarkable save for his enthusiastic backing for the ‘Muscular Judaism’ movement that tried to improve both the outward and inward perception of the Jewish people as an inferior physical race; his participation in a tour of the United States – at a time when soccer Stateside was booming in the 1920s – with the ‘Maccabees’ team illustrating this perfectly.
After hanging up his boots, he found himself in Italy, working his way up from the bottom of the coaching ladder. His reputation as a coach who insisted upon fluid, attacking, pass-and-move football was strictly at odds with his own playing style and with teams of the time – something which marked him out from the very beginning. His Jewish heritage – at the time of Mussolini and his right wing cleansing of Italy – contributed greatly too. Just as he seemed to be getting his feet under the table at places like Bari and Cagliari, and as his carefully planted fruit was threatening to ripen, politics and religion played their hands in his somewhat nomadic existence.
His time in charge of tiny Lucchese, working near miracles in the Tuscan backwaters of Lucca is particularly revelatory. He was equally loved (by the players and the fans) and mistrusted (by the authorities) as he pulled off the near impossible by getting the club into Serie A. In a recurring theme, just as his life and work was at its most serene, his world would be turned upside down and he was forced to move on again.
Even before the outbreak of the war he was exiled from his adopted homeland, and once the continent was consumed by conflict and hatred, Erbstein and his young family (his two daughters’ own recollections feature heavily throughout) pinballed around various places (including harrowing time in Nazi custody) before ending up back in their native Budapest – no safe place for a Jew during the time of a Hitler-supported regime. It is there that Erbstein’s daily focus was on the battle for life itself rather than points or goals. Their harrowing struggle is retold in great detail in possibly the book’s most gripping section.
After the war, they return to Italy and he resumes the work at Torino that he was forced to relinquish several years earlier. The unwavering loyalty and friendship of club president Ferrucio Novo pays off as the granata evolve from twice champions of Italy to near invincibles; the envy of all Europe. This is not some fluke or consequence of the planets aligning, this is the culmination of all of Erbstein’s years of dedication to his craft. His methods were revolutionary for the time and the way he built a club from the roots and the philosophy he espoused became the blueprint for everyone that came after him, which makes his footnote in the history of the game all the more perplexing. There are possible reasons for this – as Bliss debates in the book – but undoubtedly his tragic premature death has much to do with it. The dynasty he was creating at Torino would almost certainly have gone on to rival Real Madrid at the inception of the European Cup in the mid-1950s had disaster not struck. The names of Hugo Meisl, Jimmy Hogan, Jack Reynolds and Erbstein’s great friend Bela Guttman have, in recent times, been rightly re-celebrated; Erno Egri Erbstein undoubtedly deserves to be mentioned alongside them as great innovators in the field of football management.
This is one of the finest football books I’ve had the pleasure to read but is about so much more than ‘the Beautiful Game’. It’s a gripping account of race, religion, war and suspicion told amid the backdrop of the most tempestuous period on modern history, which only goes to make Erbstein’s achievements all the more extraordinary.
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You can buy Erbstein: The triumph and tragedy of football’s forgotten pioneer from Blizzard Books HERE or from Amazon HERE