The 100-year Football Curse that Appears to be Working

Former S.L. Benfica Coach Béla Guttmann (second from left)
Former S.L. Benfica Coach Béla Guttmann (second from left)

by Wendy Graham

May 2, 1962 — Are Benfica cursed? The Portuguese mega club based in Lisbon won historic back-to-back European Cup victories in 1961 and 1962. But since then, despite reaching the European finals 8 times, they have never won, because some claim, of a curse placed by their former coach on the club in 1962.

That coach was Béla Guttmann. His side had just won the 1962 European Cup for a miraculous second year in a row and against Real Madrid, considered the best team in the world. After their famous victory Guttmann, sure of his worth, asked for a 65% pay rise, which the board of Benfica refused. Furious with their answer Guttmann is then is supposed to have pronounced:

“Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion.”

Béla Guttmann was a colorful character even in a sport full of larger-than-life personalities. Born in 1899 in Budapest, Guttmann was a dancer before becoming a football player. In a pattern established early in his career, Guttmann played for a number of teams, moving often, from Hungary to Austria to the United States and back.

As a Jewish Hungarian, Guttmann survived the Holocaust but only just, many of his family and friends did not. He became a football coach in Europe and Brazil attracting controversy as he went. He was let go from Italian club AC Milan in 1953, after a feud with the club’s board, Guttmann famously said to reporters afterwards at a press conference:

“I have been sacked even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual. Goodbye.”

Guttmann came to greater prominence in Portugal managing FC Porto winning the national league with them. Offered a better deal by Benfica he jumped ship to the rival cub and won the club’s first European Cup in 1961.

In his second season with Benfica he controversially sacked 20 of the club’s most senior players and brought in the young prodigy Eusebio from Mozambique, whom he had swiped from under the noses of a rival Portuguese side. Part of a new breed of football manager, Guttmann encouraged an attacking, free-flowing style of play in his team claiming:

“I never minded if the opposition scored because I always thought we could score more”

A master of psychological tactics before they were commonplace, Guttmann took great pains before the 1962 final to install in his team a belief they could win, despite being underdogs.

So how serious should Guttmann’ curse be taken? Guttmann was after all well known for never staying long in any one place. He once said of coaching:

“the third season is fatal”,

And he seems to have already had his next football job lined up in Uruguay. However Benfico’s greatest player and Guttmann’s biggest star Eusebio certainly seems to have believed in the curse’s power. In 1990 before Benfico played AC Milan in the European Cup final in Vienna, Eusebio visited Guttmann’s grave in the city to make a plea he end the curse from beyond the grave. In 2014 when Benfico were facing yet another European final Benfica coach Jorge Jesus and his players publicly laughed off the curse, before being beaten 4-2 on penalties to Sevilla. Perhaps in today’s world of total football, where any psychological edge is key, just maybe Guttmann’s curse is still working?

Published: March 18, 2018

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