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Ernest Erbstein

Ii doubt if the name Ernest Erbstein, commonly known as Egri-Erbstein, strikes a chord with many football readers. Of our staffers only Stefano had heard of him and spoke of him in the reverential terms normally reserved for Fiorentina. He led a life that would have broken most and is the father of the modern coaching. Born in 1889 in Navyvarad Hungary to Jewish parents, he played for Budapest AK and in Italy for Fuime (a city made famous by the fascist poet womaniser and aviator Annunzio liberating it) – and Vicenza. He then tried his luck in the nascent american football world of the twenties whose principal teams and owners were Jewish before returning to Italy to manage Bari, Nocerina and Cagliari with considerable success. He moved to Torino but because of the growing anti Jewish laws of Mussolini decided with his family to leave for the Netherlands. Stopped by the SS on a train through Germany they were deported  to Hungary.

Hungary was a satellite Nazi state but vigorously began to oppress the Jewish population. Unbelievably Erbstein and his brother started a successful textile business. His wife and two daughters were hidden in a Catholic convent. Never one to shirk a challenge he decided he had no alternative but to give himself up and presented himself to a concentration camp. The capo was his sergeant during the first world war and both helped Ernesto and his family. When he was deported on a train to another camp he escaped in the company of 4 others, one of whom – Bela Guttman – was to manage the successful Benfica side of the early sixties that ended the reign of Real Madrid in the European Cup. Covertly he continued to assist Torino as he enjoyed a warm relationship with club President Novo. This included a trip back to Italy in hazardous circumstances.

After the war he resumed coaching Torino named Grande Torino as they were by far the best team in Italian football. His daughter Susanna a successful ballerina said her father could face down and confront any of the travails that confronted and in every sense always come back.On May 1949 neither he nor his team did. The plane returning  from friendly in Benfica crashed against the Superga cliff-side monastery and he perished together with his team. It was measure of the respect in which he was held that, as Torino could only field their youth team for their remaining fixtures, every team they played did likewise.

As coach he more or less invented tactical and physical preparation of his teams: a tactical genius he also studied the oppostion meticulously. He could be unpredictable, dropping his top goal score for a 19 year-old from the reserves. He was tough but supported his players. His best player at Torino Valentino Mazzola lost his form as he was having an affaire and divorce was impossible. Erbstein successfully arranged an annulment in Romania. His number two was another forgotten coach, Englishman Leslie Leivesley.

His life is well documented in a outstanding biography by Dominic Bliss called Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Pioneer: it’s an enthtralling account of somebody who deserves to be better remembered.

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About Rex Mitchell

Rex Mitchell is a Brentford supporter from childhood. This has not prevented him having a distinguished Fleet Street career as a sports reporter and later deputy football editor. A widower, Rex is a bit of a bandit golfer off his official handicap of 20 and is currently chairman of his local bowls club. More Posts