WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
Ahead of the launch of my debut book, I began to reflect on the difficulties faced by a writer trying to uncover an untold story. The name Ernő Egri Erbstein means very little even to those of us who claim to know our football history, but the Hungarian Jew who built the Grande Torino was a key influence on the modern game. So why was his story forgotten for so many years?
This month I announced the release of my first book, Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer.
The title gives you a fair idea of the book’s subject and at least two of the emotions you will experience while reading it. However, I have found it extremely difficult to be succinct when describing what makes the life of Ernő Egri Erbstein so intensely fascinating and why I decided to write this book.
A tweet is 140 characters and a blurb is a couple of hundred words, yet Erbstein was a survivor of two world wars, one as an officer in a defeated army and one as a victim of the Holocaust. Between those wars, he took to the barricades as part of a left-wing revolution in his native Hungary and joined a Zionist football club who toured the East Coast of the United States at the height of the Roaring Twenties.
When he began coaching, his innovations on and off the pitch left an indelible mark on the game and changed the role of the manager forever, while the teams under his charge went from strength to strength as he mixed motivational techniques, meticulous tactical planning and shrewd transfer dealings.
Even as his five-time Scudetto-winning Grande Torino side were taking Italian football by storm, Erbstein was battling rumours that he was a Communist spy and that he was undermining celebrated national manager Vittorio Pozzo.
Then, just as his team appeared to be at the peak of their powers, he was killed – they were all killed – in a tragic air disaster on the Superga hilltop overlooking Turin, in May 1949.
It has taken me five years to uncover the full story and to put it into writing. Along the way, I lost count of the number of times people asked me why I would want to tell Erbstein’s story. Was I related to him? No. Was it because I was Jewish? I’m not. Did I support Torino? Only since I started researching this book.
I was told in the early stages of my research that potential publishers would have been interested in this story had Erbstein been British, or if he had managed a more famous team. While I understood this comment, it still frustrated me. Would the story be more captivating if my subject was a British soldier returning from a Japanese prisoner of war camp instead of a Holocaust survivor from Central Europe? Would Erbstein’s sporting success have been any more impressive if he had achieved it at Manchester United instead of Torino? Surely people could take the leap of imagination necessary to empathise with the human tragedy and sporting triumph within this story, regardless of its setting. Even if I was wrong about that, I felt the story deserved to be told.
So I cannot begin to explain how uplifted I felt when I watched Searching for Sugar Man this week, particularly during the scene in which a South African music journalist described his sense of ‘euphoria’ after making a breakthrough that uncovered the truth behind the lost story of his favourite American folk singer Rodriguez.
If you chase a story that isn’t widely known – a story that you can’t discover from a Google search – every new piece of information feels like a piece of uncovered treasure. When I happened upon a tactics column written by Erbstein for an Italian sports publication in the early 1930s, I woke my fiancée up to tell her…at 1am…with a massive grin on my face.
Here was the guy, who I had seen described as a genius many times in old interviews, explaining in his own words how he had learned to be a more pragmatic coach during his trip to the United States in 1927. While the rest of his Central European team-mates on that tour had been disgusted by the direct style of their American opponents, he claimed to have learned a thing or two about levelling the playing field against superior opposition.
A couple of years later, his Bari team were the first in Italy to play counterattacking football with long diagonal balls towards powerful forwards. And this from a coach who became renowned for the intricate pattern-weaving passing play of his Grande Torino side in the late 1940s.
My enthusiasm for that rather detailed digression goes some way towards demonstrating why I have been so engrossed in this man’s story. With all the books and all the websites covering the history and the tactical progression of the game, those of us who read widely about football tend to think we know the whole back story by now – or at least the main protagonists. But, just as Rodriguez was overlooked by the guardians of music history, Erbstein had been locked out of football’s pantheon of greats.
I discovered a number of possible reasons for his lack of recognition along the way – some more sinister than others – and I hope that you will pick up a copy of the book to discover the full Erbstein story for yourselves.