Remembering the remarkable Arpad Weisz
When the players of Inter and Bologna walk out onto the pitch tonight for their Coppa Italia quarter-final, they will wear T-Shirts bearing the slogan "No to racism" and a picture of Árpád Weisz, a former coach of both clubs.
Don't trouble yourself too much if you haven't heard the name before. Many even in Italy had forgotten about Weisz until the editor of Guerin Sportivo, Matteo Marani wrote a book about his life entitled "From the Scudetto to Auschwitz", a work that has become difficult to find even though it was only published six years ago. It deserves another print run and a translation, for Weisz's story should be more widely known.
Weisz was born in Hungary at the end of the 19th century. He was a good footballer, a left winger, representing his country at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. A move to Italy followed and it wasn't long before Weisz found himself at Inter, though he wouldn't play more than a dozen games. A serious knee injury ended his playing career but not his time in football. Weisz became a coach. And after serving as an assistant at Alessandria he returned to Inter to take the senior job in 1926.
He was 30, which in hindsight makes the consternation at the appointment of the club's current coach Andrea Stramaccioni when he was only 36, seem trivial. 'If you're good enough, you're old enough,' goes the saying and that was certainly true of Weisz. Just as it was with Giuseppe Meazza, arguably the greatest football player Italy has ever produced, after whom San Siro was later re-named. It was Weisz who discovered him.
Weisz would teach Meazza almost everything he knew, recommending, for instance, in an effort to improve his touch and technique that he spend hours in front of a wall, kicking the ball and controlling the rebound, alternating between his right and his left foot. He would give Meazza his debut at the age of 17 and in 1930, they'd win their first Scudetto together.
It was a landmark achievement, not least for Weisz, who remains the youngest coach ever to lead a team to the Serie A title. He was only 34.
The Scudetto had come in the season that Inter had merged, supposedly for financial motives, with Unione Sportiva Milanese, becoming Ambrosiana. Another reason behind the name-change, which would last until the end of the Second World War, was to acquiesce with the Fascist regime and its diktat that sought to Italianise names that were both foreign and of foreign connotation like, for instance, Internazionale.
Weisz also had to alter his name to Veisz. It was a sign, if there hadn't already been enough around him, that, as Jew, he would come to be treated with greater suspicion and hostility by the regime. But for now, Weisz carried on in his profession.
After leaving Ambrosiana in 1931 [and definitively so following a return for another spell in charge in 1932], his next trick came at Bologna.
In the meantime, Il Calcio Illustrato, the weekly football magazine, had declared him 'il Mago', the Wizard, a sobriquet that would later be bestowed upon and more widely associated with Helenio Herrera and later, much later, Jose Mourinho. Like them, Weisz was thought of as a visionary, a man with radically new ideas on football. He put them down on paper, writing a book simply entitled "The Game of Football," the preface of which was written by Italy's two-time World Cup winning coach Vittorio Pozzo.
While other coaches at the time, like Carlo Carcano at Juventus, used to stand on the sidelines in a suit and a tie, Weisz liked to get dirty and would join in with his players during training sessions to put his theories into practice.
He brought modernity to Bologna and to Italian football as a whole. The players' diets were given careful attention, as was the pitch at the Littoriale, the club's old ground. For instance, Weisz saw to it that a team of gardeners was assembled to make sure each and every blade of grass was the right length.
He was a details man, worldly-wise and always willing to learn, drawing on his experiences from a trip to South America and what he'd read and heard about Herbert Chapman in England. And yet it was the English who were to be taught a lesson from Weisz.
After leading Bologna to back-to-back league titles, his side reached the final of the now defunct Tournoi International de l'Expo Universelle de Paris, one of the many forerunners to the European Cup. Their opponents were Chelsea who were about to be blown away. Bologna won 4-1 and that team is still remembered to this day as the one "that shook the world." It was the most celebrated moment of Weisz's career.
Shortly afterwards, however, the world stopped shaking. And instead Weisz's was turned upside down. A year later in July 1938, the Fascist regime published a manifesto preparing for the enactment of a set of race laws in September. Jews were to be stripped of their citizenship and ousted from their jobs. And so, after a match against Lazio towards the end of October, Weisz was sacked by Bologna.
He and his family fled Italy, first heading for France and then, after a few months, for Holland where he coached a small amateur club, DFC, now better known as FC Dordrecht. It was there that il Mago Weisz cast his final spell, guiding the team to an unlikely victory over Feyenoord.
When the Nazis invaded and occupied Holland in May 1940, the circle around him and his loved ones grew smaller and smaller. There was no way out. Weisz, his wife Elena, and his two young children Roberto and Clara were arrested by the SS on August 7, 1942 and detained at a transit camp in Westerbork, the same one Anne Frank was taken to. His family were then placed on a train to Auschwitz on October 2, 1942. Three days later, they were gassed. Weisz survived another 16 months. Fit as you would expect considering his profession, he was kept alive because he could work. He died at Auschwitz on January 31, 1944, another victim of the holocaust.
Marani's re-telling of Weisz's harrowing and tragic story was welcomed for bringing the great coach's life and his achievements back into focus. Since its publication, plaques have been put up by the councils of Milan and Bologna at San Siro and the Renato Dall'Ara. And, in addition to the T-Shirts worn by the players tonight, it's below the plaque at San Siro that the mayors of each city will exchange Nerazzurro and Rossoblu shirts in a act of remembrance. Each jersey will bear Weisz's name on the back.
May this remarkable man and his place in the history of Italian football never be forgotten.
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.