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Angels With Dirty Faces

Posted on 17th August 2016 by Sally Campbell
Award-winning sportswriter Jonathan Wilson is the editor of The Blizzard magazine and author of Football Book of the Year 2009 Inverting The Pyramid. Here, he introduces his newest title Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina at the heart of which is the engimatic story of Imre Hirschl, a Hungarian who was a 'charismatic genius, possible con-man, war hero, match-fixer and indisputably brilliant coach'

Nobody ever likes the parts of books you want them to like. You skim the reviews and even if they’re complimentary, you feel a vague irritation that everybody has missed the bit that’s actually good, the bit that’s important.

Writers, of course, are often terrible at judging their own work, so there may be good reason. People don’t care how you got the information: they just care what’s on the page. A writer will remember the hours combing through libraries or archives to confirm one fact, or how difficult it was to get an interview, the dozens of phone calls, the begging and cajoling, the favours pulled in, the waiting on a street corner for ten minutes of grunts that translate into perhaps two sentences of book. Readers will skip it in less than a second.

That’s understandable, but it doesn’t stop it rankling. I couldn’t realistically have hoped for Inverting the Pyramid to have had a better reception but as far as I’m aware, eight years after it came out, nobody has yet realised what the biggest revelation of that book was, the detail that makes it all fit together.

Until the mid-thirties, Brazilian football had lagged significantly behind that of Argentina and Uruguay. Its subsequent rise was, it’s widely accepted, stimulated by one man, Dori Kruschner. The problem was, nobody knew anything about him. I spoke to historian after historian in Rio de Janeiro who all had the same story: Kruschner was central European, probably Jewish, and had arrived at Flamengo in 1936. There he’d started to impose the so-called W-defence that had become popular in Europe, had fallen out with his assistant coach and his star player and had been sacked after ten months amid general scepticism about his methods. 

Except his assistant coach, Flavio Costa, who had been demoted to make way for Kruschner, hadn’t really been sceptical but had deliberately undermined him. As soon as he had his old job back, he implemented his own version of the W-defence that, over the following two decades, evolved into the 4-2-4 with which Brazil charmed the world and won the World Cup in 1958.

But who was Kruschner? Nobody knew. He was an alien who had arrived, imparted great knowledge, been rejected, and had died from a virus four years later. The television pundit and great chronicler of Flamengo, Roberto Assaf, wrote to the football federations of Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Did they know who Kruschner was? None did.

For reasons of football history, I was almost certain Kruschner would be Hungarian. I poked around in Budapest. Nothing. And then one evening a Hungarian friend casually asked if I were sure the name was Kruschner. Could it actually be Kürschner, a reasonably common Jewish name. The next day we checked. There he was: Izidor ‘Dori’ Kürschner, born 1885, five caps for Hungary, and, most significantly, played and then worked for MTK. Suddenly everything fell into place: at MTK he would have been come into contact with the great itinerant English coach Jimmy Hogan. The details coalesced: we’d known Hogan was hugely significant as the father of central European football but here was a direct link: he was also the grandfather of Brazilian football.

My problem then was that the evolutionary family tree I’d drawn up only made sense if there was an equivalent figure in Argentina who’d got there a little bit earlier. I found him: Emerigo Hirschl, a Hungarian who coached Gimnasia La Plata, did well, and moved to River Plate where he won the double in 1936. All the Argentinian sources I found said he’d played for the Budapest club Ferencváros on their 1929 tour of South America, had liked Argentina and had settled there.

I left it at that. Nobody seemed to doubt that version of events and it made sense. The pieces fitted. But for Angels With Dirty Faces, I needed more. Who was the man who led the modernisation of Argentinian tactics? Photographs show him to have been exceptionally tall and hawkish of profile. His charisma is obvious: in every picture he is the central presence, everybody else is listening to him.

I got in touch with Ferencváros. They hadn’t heard of him. There was not a single reference to him in the club museum. There was a sense of the ground falling away from beneath my feet. I got in touch with Ferenc Rudas who, having been born in 1921, was Ferencváros’s oldest surviving player until he died in February. He didn’t know him. Hirschl, like Kürschner, was a cipher, more myth than man.

I dug around. Emerigo, of course, was a Hispanaicisation: he was Imre or occasionally Emerich. I found evidence of his birth on 11 July 1900 in Apostag, a small town about sixty miles south of Budapest, and of his death on 23 September 1973. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Buenos Aires. But of a football career I could find nothing.

But then a friend in Budapest, Henrik Hedegűs, discovered a memoir written by one of Hungary’s leading sports journalists of the fifties and sixties that included long extracts of an interview with the great coach Béla Guttmann in which he detailed his first meeting with Hirschl. He had been touring the east coast of the Americas with Hakoah, a club established in Vienna to promote muscular Judaism and raise funds for the Zionist cause, when he had been approached by Hirschl in São Paulo. Hirschl was desperate and begged for a job with the side. He’d been a butcher, he said, and had played semi-professionally. Hakoah took him on as a masseur – he gave, in Guttmann’s words, “one hell of a massage” – but ran out of money and had to let him go in Buenos Aires.

Guttmann had more to say. Caution is required for Guttmann was a fabulist, forever telling stories and polish his own myth, but he claimed Hirschl, playing up his connection with Hakoah, had talked his way into the Gimnasia job with the specific aim of getting sacked so he would get a pay-off he could use to bring his wife and daughter over from Budapest. Certainly his behaviour on getting the Gimnasia job was odd: he binned a number of established stars, promoted youth and played players in unusual positions. Gimnasia won only three of their first sixteen games under Hirschl, but finished a respectable seventh. The next season, but for some highly questionable refereeing towards the end of the season, they would have won the league, which is what earned Hirschl his move to River. Which raises two possibilities: perhaps he was a genius whose startling methods needed time to be accepted. Or perhaps he was like Max Bialystock from The Producers, I advertently finding success as he sought failure – and then having the wit to adapt and capitalise on that.

Then, another stroke of luck. I’d mentioned the story to the Argentinian football historian Esteban Bekerman. Shortly before the 2014 World Cup, he was approached by a psychoanalyst called Gabriela Steinberg who wanted his advice concerning a book that was coming out in Uruguay about the 1950 World Cup and, she said, accused her father, Imre Hirschl, of being a match-fixer. The book detailed Uruguay’s famous 2-1 win over Brazil to win that tournament and gave the credit not just to the captain, Obdulio Varela, but to Hirschl, his coach at the Montevideo club Peñarol. But it also noted he had only left Argentina after being banned for match-fixing.

Gabriela, it turned out, was Hirschl’s daughter from his second marriage. Bekerman found a number of references to Hirschl’s suspension and, trawling the archive of the Argentinian Football Association, I found the relevant minutes: a life ban for acting as an intermediary in bribing a player in September 1943.

I got in touch with Gabriela Steinberg. She had a large collection of cuttings relating to his father’s career, a series of interviews in which the range of clubs he claimed to have played for grew and grew: teams not only in Hungary, but Austria, France and Czechoslovakia. She also remembered the scars he carried on his hip and the bullet-wound in his wrist. He had followed his brothers to Palestine during the First World War, where he lied about his age and signed up with a unit under British command. He remained in Palestine after the war to fight with Jewish nationalists against the Ottoman Empire.

At the same time I got in touch with the Swedish football writer Gunnar Persson, an old friend who is the author of a history of Hakoah. He had an old Hungarian almanac that included Hirschl for 1925 when he’d played in the second division for Húsos, the team of the meat industry. That seemed to confirm some of Guttmann’s story – although Gabriela insists her father was never a butcher. But, most intriguingly, at the end of that season Húsos were kicked out of the league for match-fixing.

But what was he doing in São Paulo in 1930? I made some enquiries there and another friend – I was blessed in writing this both by remarkable luck and a string of very talented mates – discovered in a history of the club that is now called Palmeiras an anecdote from 1929. The club’s president Count Materazzo, the richest man in Brazil, was applying for a visa in the US embassy in Paris when he approached by Hirschl, who talked his way into a job as an assistant coach.

Slowly, thanks to research in five countries, the gaps were filled in. There are still questions: was Hirschl involved in match-fixing at Húsos? Who did he actually play for? What was he doing between 1925 and 1929? What did he do between being laid off by Hakoah and getting the Gimnasia job? What were his intentions when he took it? Why did he get involved in the match-fixing in 1943? What happened to his first wife and daughter?

But the picture we have is fascinating enough: Imre Hirschl, charismatic genius, possible con-man, war hero, match-fixer and indisputably brilliant coach. That’s the bit of Angels With Dirty Faces I want people to like.

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