This is the story of Ernő Egri Erbstein,
one of football’s great innovators, a tactical pioneer and an inspirational champion – a
Hungarian who helped to change Italian football forever. He is probably the greatest football
manager you have never heard of. Born in 1898, on the fringes of the fading
Habsburg Empire, Erbstein reached adulthood during the First World War and served briefly
as an officer in the Hungarian army. When hostilities came to an end, he made a life
for himself as a moderately talented professional footballer, but it was not until his playing
days were over that he began to make a lasting impression on the game. Armed with a fascination for philosophy and
sports science, he called on those academic interests, alongside his love of the game,
to help shape the direction of football as it grew into something globally significant.
Working in Italy, during the 1930s and 40s, Erbstein helped to bring the game into the
professional era, developing fitness techniques, opposition scouting reports and modern tactical
ideas, while the teams he instilled with his ground-breaking theories went from strength
to strength. He enjoyed success regionally with clubs such as Bari, Cagliari and Nocerina,
but made his name in a relative footballing backwater. As manager of Tuscan club AS Lucchese between
1933 and 1938, he took the minor provincial club from the third tier to the top flight
with two promotions, before registering what remains their highest-ever finish – seventh
in Serie A, above both Roma and Inter. Erbstein was praised for pioneering modern
scouting methods, for his focus on technique, fitness and dietary requirements in training,
and also for his tactics and his motivational speeches on matchday. Most of all he was celebrated
for his humanity. His players loved him. In an era when the term ‘cult of personality’
carried sinister connotations, he wielded his strong character to positive ends. In 1938, shortly after accepting a major job
with title-chasing Torino, Erbstein was forced to flee Italy due to the passing of anti-Semitic
legislation by Mussolini’s Fascist government. He returned to his home city, Budapest, but
when Hungary was occupied by the Nazis in 1944, he was rounded up into a labour camp. As the dark days of the Budapest Holocaust
threatened to end in tragedy for many of the Hungarian capital’s interned Jews, Erbstein
and future European Cup winning coach Bela Guttmann met in a labour camp. In an extraordinary
turn of events, the pair planned and led an escape with a group of others, and survived
the remainder of the war in hiding with the help of his family. Despite those traumatic wartime experiences,
Erbstein’s passion for football never left him and he returned to Italy in 1946 and was
immediately welcomed back to Torino by the ever-supportive club President Ferruccio Novo. His club was still following the path he had
set them on before he was forced to flee the country eight years earlier, but now they
were two-times champions of Italy and he had a job on his hands to convince them that they
could become even better. They soon realised he was right. Over the next two-and-a-half years, the Grande
Torino turned Serie A into a one-horse race, winning league titles at a canter and playing
a brand of football that contemporaries described as being akin to the Dutch total football
of the 1970s. Erbstein’s Torino played a an intense attacking
game, fusing the Central European short passing game with Italian guile and the solidity of
the English W-M shape. It became known as Il Sistema. He favoured a staggered midfield,
with wing-halves Giuseppe Grezar and Eusebio Castigliano sitting deep behind inside-forwards
Ezio Loik and Valention Mazzola, the team’s captain and the golden boy of Italian football
in the 1940s. They formed a kind of four-piston pump at the centre of the team, thrusting
up and down the pitch as a unit, fuelling the team with their energy, while each individual
component was capable of unlocking opponents with intricate passes to the wingers, Romeo
Menti and Franco Ossola, or the flamboyant center-forward Guglielmo Gabetto. Behind them was a physically dominant three-man
defence – Aldo Ballorin, Mario Rigamonti and Virgilio Maroso – who pressed high up
the pitch to ensure that Erbstein’s sistema was a tactic that, when effective, left opponents
overrun, overpowered and, ultimately, overwhelmed. Goalkeeper Valerio Bacigalupo was as good
as any in Italy, an acrobatic presence between the posts and charismatic figure in the dressing
room. It was the ultimate team, and with Erbstein at the helm, they never stood still. They won Serie A five times on the spin and,
on one occasion, provided 10 of the starting XI for an Italy international game against
Hungary. Such success has ensured that they will always be referred to as Il Grande Torino
– the Great Torino – and they are still considered by many to have been the greatest
Italian club side of all-time. Devastatingly, they are remembered as much
as anything for the tragedy that ended their glorious period of success. On the fourth of May, 1949 the plane carrying
the Grande Torino home from a friendly game against Benfica in Lisbon crashed into the
embankment wall of the basilica at the top of the Superga hill overlooking the city of
Turin. All 31 people on board were killed, including 18 members of the squad and their
manager, Ernő Egri Erbstein. Erbstein: The triumph and tragedy of football’s
forgotten pioneer, by Dominic Bliss, is available to buy now from and on Kindle.