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Torino's pioneering manager wasn't defined by a plane crash

"Erbstein: The triumph and tragedy of football's forgotten power" tells the remarkable story of Ernő Egri Erbstein, former coach of Torino, who survived the Holocaust only to perish in the Superga air disaster.

Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Images

There are plenty of excellent reasons to read this excellent book.

You could, if you were feeling whimsical, read it because the central character has a quite magnificent three-parter of a name, the kind of name that elevates any book above its peers. Bastian Balthazar Bux. The Quangle-Wangle Quee. And Ernő Egri Erbstein, who had adventures to rival his two predecessors in this paragraph, but also had the considerable advantage of not being fictional.

It's more likely, given which website you're on, that you're be here for the football. The title of the book -- one of the first to come from Blizzard Books, the publishing arm of the quarterly magazine devoted to the arcane, the obscure and the otherwise-unpublishable-in-this-modern-age -- describes Erbstein as "football's forgotten pioneer," and the contents don't disappoint. Erbstein's journey, which takes him from rural Romania to industrial Turin, and from Budapest AK's midfield to the management of Torino's great, doomed post-war side, isn't just a story worth telling in its own right. It is the developing journey of inter- and post-war European football.

A product of the central European culture that treated football and its tactics as an unashamedly intellectual problem, he spent his time in Italy refining il sistema: a blending of the metodo used by Vittorio Pozzo with the national team, the short passing game he'd grown up with and lessons drawn from Herbert Chapman's Arsenal and their counter-attacking W-M. Away from the chalkboard, he introduced repetitive, intensive physical training methods that his players hated, he considered nutrition and statistics, and he prided himself on his knack for psychological motivation.

In short, while Matt Busby was developing the idea of the modern manager in Manchester, Erbstein was doing much the same in Turin. He even -- and this was before Louis van Gaal battered the word into submission -- folded a little "philosophy" into his thinking, taking inspiration from Dutch writer Johan Huizinga's work on play and how it fits into culture. You can almost see the modern concept of the "manager" emerging through his career, he even had a Brendan Rodgers-esque liking for the occasional gnomic epigram. "Courage and sweat are the ingredients with which we must prepare the victory cake." Sounds delicious.

Which is quite a lot to be getting on with, and it's credit to Dominic Bliss's writing that none of this weighs too heavily on the book. The tactical chat is there, but so, too, are the personalities and the stories, football as people, as well as systems. It helps, of course, that, by and large, Erbstein's cakes came out pretty well: even before he guided one of the finest sides Italian football has ever seen, he took Lucchese up two divisions to Serie A and spent two successful (if short and disrupted) spells at Bari.

This isn't, however, just a book about football. This is a book about a man, his family, his passion and how all three of those things fitted into a continent that was in the process of tearing itself to pieces. This is a book of Europe. Because on the one hand, Erbstein represents a poster child for the idea of a united continent, the free flow of people and opportunities and ideas across borders, to the benefit of all. And on the other, his is a story of what it meant to be Jewish as the continent stumbled out of the first world war, then marched into the second.

At every turn, Erbstein's life takes place against the backdrop of European politics. He plays a part in the tour of the Maccabees to the USA, an invitational team put together to promote the idea of "Muscular Judaism". His first club in Italy was a town then called Fiume, now called Rijeka, which had at that time just been annexed as part of fascist Italy's project of irredentism. As his coaching career developed in pre-WW2 Italy, he took advantage of the political climate to recruit talented but politically suspect players to clubs well below their level. And then in 1938, when Mussolini introduces the Manifesto of Race and made Italy's anti-Semitism explicit, he was forced to leave first Lucchese, then Torino, then Italy altogether.

There is a persistent suggestion that sport and politics should be kept separate. In these pages, in this history, football is a weapon. It is used by Jewish intellectuals and businessmen to counter the persistent slander that "Jews were not capable of athletic development." It is used by fascists to promote "the physical improvement of the race." If Erbstein's life teaches us anything, it's that this supposed separation is fundamentally impossible. Even later, after the war was done, an argument with Pozzo ahead of a friendly against communist Hungary was used to cast aspersions on his character, to the point that he was forced to write a piece headlined "I Am Not A Secret Agent."

But there is one final reason to read this book. Thanks to a combination of great personal fortitude and remarkable coincidence -- not least a jump from a moving train in the company of future Benfica manager and European Cup winner Belá Guttmann -- Erbstein and his family survived the war and the Holocaust. Having kept in touch with the club's hierarchy throughout, he returned to Torino in September 1946, gradually taking control of the team as the club racked up five successive titles. The final third of this book stands -- at least in this reviewer's experience -- as the definitive English language account of that Grande Torino side: who they were, how they were formed, how they played and how they won. And Erbstein's role at the center of it all.

And then, in thick fog, they were gone. The Superga air disaster claimed 31 lives: 18 players, five club officials (including Erbstein) and eight others, including journalists and the plane crew. Bliss's mission here -- as revealed by that "forgotten" in the subtitle -- is to take this tragedy and ensure that it isn't the defining moment of Erbstein's life. The book begins with the author attending the annual memorial service at Superga, and the book stands and succeeds as a memorial in the truest and most important sense: here is this man who died. Here is how, and why, he lived. A life worth remembering not just for the manner in which it came to an end.

You can buy this book direct from the publisher here.