In Erbstein's Name
How the extraordinary life of a Hungarian pioneer inspired a tournament in Budapest
In the time it took Duran Duran’s social media manager to press ‘retweet’, a Hungarian sixth-tier club became famous. The giants of 1980s new wave synth pop are not exactly renowned for their influence in the world of amateur football, but when Simon Le Bon and his bandmates posed for a photograph with the blue-and-black home shirts of Budapesti Atlétikai Klub, the image immediately began to circulate among grass-roots football fans across Europe. Within a few hours, there were stories in three European countries asking why Duran Duran were now following the fortunes of a team that count themselves lucky if their attendance reaches double figures.
The answer lies in the story behind the Egri Erbstein Tournament, which was held for the first time this summer in Budapest. The competition takes its name from Ernő Egri Erbstein1, the Hungarian Holocaust survivor and pioneering coach who built the ‘Grande Torino’ team that won Serie A five times in the 1940s before perishing in the Superga air disaster of May 1949. Before beginning his coaching career, however, Erbstein had spent the bulk of his playing days with Budapesti Atlétikai Klub, or BAK, as they are more commonly known.
BAK – pronounced ‘bock’ – were originally disbanded in 1947, but last summer a group of local football enthusiasts who had read Erbstein’s story were inspired to bring the club back to life in his honour. BAK were founder members of the Hungarian league in 1901, finished third in 1912 and were runners-up in the Hungarian Cup in 1913, thanks largely to the goals of the great Alfréd Schaffer, one of the deadliest strikers in Europe at the time.
Now, over a century after those golden years, Bertalan Molnár, the president and co-founder of the re-formed BAK, has made it his main objective to re-establish the club’s name in the public consciousness by hosting a new amateur club tournament that he hopes will become a grass-roots equivalent of the Champions League or the World Club Cup.
As the author of Erbstein’s biography, I was one of the first people that Molnár contacted as he looked to get the tournament off the ground. He explained how important international participation and interest was to the growth of the event, and asked if I might be able to help him find a suitable English club to travel to Budapest for the first edition of the competition. Fortunately, I knew just whom to call.
Over the course of the previous season, I had become a regular at King George’s Field in Tolworth, the home of the Corinthian-Casuals. The south-west London side is the highest-ranked amateur team in English football after earning promotion from the eighth-tier Isthmian League Division One South at the end of the 2017-18 campaign. Despite the disadvantage at which their amateur ethos puts them in a league in which some players are earning several hundreds of pounds a week, the Casuals established themselves in the Isthmian Premier League under their ambitious young coach, James Bracken, who insists on preparing for games and structuring the club like a professional outfit. Yet, admirable as their recent achievements are, it was the club’s unique history that appealed to the organising committee of the Egri Erbstein Tournament. After all, Corinthian-Casuals are the direct descendants of one of the most important clubs in the popularisation of football around the world.
Corinthian FC were arguably the best club side in England at the turn of the 20th century. A team made up of former public schoolboys that championed the ideals of sportsmanship and fair play, the club was founded in 1882, specifically to improve the England national team, who were sick of being outplayed by a Scotland side made up largely of Queens Park players. The plan was to start an English team with which the nation’s most talented players could develop a style of play and an understanding that would enable them to overcome the Scots on a regular basis.
It worked, and before long England were regularly defeating their neighbours north of the border, with Corinthians at the heart of their team. To this day, no club has provided more England internationals and, in the mid-1890s, the national team was twice made up of 11 Corinthians.
They didn’t believe in professionalism or in entering league and cup competitions, but they often played the FA Cup winners in the Sheriff of London Shield, which was billed as an annual tussle between the leading amateur and professional sides in England. They were also among the most popular opponents when the top professional teams were looking to bring the crowds through the gate for lucrative friendly games. In 1904, for example, the Corinthians defeated Manchester United 11-3 in an exhibition match in Leyton, east London, which would still be on record as the Red Devils’ heaviest defeat had it been played in an official competition. Make no mistake, though, those ‘friendly’ games were highly competitive – everyone had something to prove when the top professionals met the Corinthians.
They also toured the world, organising exhibition matches and training sessions with eager locals who were new to the sport, making a big impression everywhere they went. In a sense, they were the first global superstars of football. Real Madrid wear white in honour of the Corinthians, who so impressed the Spanish club’s first goalscorer Arthur Johnson that he suggested to his teammates that they should don the same colours in tribute.
Perhaps most notably of all, when the Corinthians visited São Paulo in 1910, their performances so inspired a group of local railway workers that they decided to form their own club and name it after the stylish English outfit. SC Corinthians Paulista have gone on to become one of Brazil’s best-supported and most successful clubs, winning the national league seven times, as well as the Copa Libertadores and two world club titles. They can count their following in millions, a surprising number of which make the pilgrimage to London in order to visit the club that gave Corinthians their name more than a century ago.
It is less well known that, six years before that trip to Brazil, the Corinthians toured Europe for the first time and their first stop was Budapest. There, in the summer of 1904, they defeated three local sides by an aggregate score of 27-0, while the English players were so taken by the enthusiasm they encountered among the locals that they decided to leave some kind of lasting legacy to encourage the further growth of the game there. When they returned to London, the club had a solid silver trophy minted for the amateur teams of Hungary which they called the Corinthian Cup. It was presented a year later by their friends, the Casuals, who were touring the continent that year and so it came to pass that – 34 years before the two clubs actually merged – the Corinthian-Casuals made history in Budapest.
BAK, it turned out, had played Ferencváros in the first round of the first ever Corinthian Cup competition, in 1907. After discovering such strong historical links between their two clubs, both sets of directors were keen to ensure that Corinthian-Casuals would return to Budapest for the first Egri Erbstein Tournament. John Forrest, the club’s community officer, flew out with me to meet the BAK board in November 2018 and hit it off with them immediately. Over a boozy dinner, it was agreed that the English club would bring a new Corinthian Cup with them to Budapest, to be awarded to the tournament winners.
The following week, Corinthian-Casuals did the sums and began their efforts to raise the estimated £12,000 it would cost to take the squad to Budapest for the weekend. At the time, nobody involved had any idea what kind of appetite there was for such a cause, but within a couple of weeks of launching a GoFundMe campaign that gained national press coverage, the club had already raised the bulk of the money. One former player and long-time member, John Balson, sent them a cheque for £6,000 shortly before he passed away, stating that he wished for the current side to experience the kind of overseas tours he had enjoyed during his time at Corinthian- Casuals. His gesture demonstrated the feeling among club stalwarts that the trip and the tournament were very much in keeping with the Corinthian tradition.
With such enthusiastic backing, it wasn’t long before the trip was confirmed and at that point scores of die-hard supporters, desperate not to miss the opportunity to see their local team play in Europe, booked their flights to Budapest. Meanwhile, Egri Erbstein Tournament posters began to go up on the walls of the clubhouse and the local pubs. The sense of excitement among this small group of non-league fans was tangible in the last couple of months of the season and once Casuals secured their survival in the Isthmian Premier League in April, Budapest was all anyone at King George’s Field could talk about.
Back in Hungary, Bertalan and his fellow BAK directors were learning what it takes to organise a football tournament. Over the course of the second half of their club’s first season back in existence, they secured the support of the Hungarian football federation to host the new competition, settled on a four-team format, then identified a venue, a suitable weekend and two more participating teams.
We approached several clubs from across Europe, each of them connected in some way to either the Erbstein or the Corinthians story, but either a lack of resources or the timing of the tournament, in mid-June, prevented them from being able to send a team. However, the line-up was soon complete when the founder members of the Hungarian football league, BEAC, signed up alongside the former amateur champions Testvériség to ensure that four historic clubs would contest the first trophy.
Shortly afterwards, the Egri Erbstein Tournament was added to the programme of events for Budapest’s year as European Capital of Sport. There was no going back now. What had previously felt like an exciting, yet distant, possibility began to feel a lot more anxiety-inducing for those of us on the organising committee. On top of all the security, insurance and catering necessities, we also sought sponsorship and publicity for an event that had never taken place before, featuring teams that played in the lower reaches of their respective national football pyramids. With such a convoluted back story, it was difficult to come up with a pithy elevator pitch when approaching media organisations and potential sponsors, but we kept sending out the emails in the belief that enough people would recognise the merit in what we were doing. Even so, it was more than a bit of a surprise when Molnár came to us with news of an email from the manager of Duran Duran.
You might reasonably wonder what the men behind hits such as “Rio” and “Girls on Film” have to do with amateur football. Well, not much, but they do have another song in their back catalogue called “My Own Way”, which Molnár felt summarised the manner in which BAK and the tournament organisers had gone about their work over the past year. With nothing to lose, he sent an email asking the band if they would grant him permission to use the track as the tournament anthem. Incredibly, the band replied that they were not only happy for him to do so, but were also keen to get their hands on some personalised BAK shirts.
A few weeks later, Duran Duran shared a photo of themselves with their new blue-and-black jerseys on Twitter and Facebook, which gained thousands of likes. Within minutes of the post going up, BAK were receiving requests from fans all over the world who wanted a shirt like the one Simon Le Bon had.
Media coverage built steadily after that. There were articles in Hungarian and English newspapers, while the São Paulo native David Luiz sent a video message to Corinthian-Casuals backing them to win the cup and stating his admiration for the club that had once made such an impression his home town.
The most important advocates of the tournament, though, were Erbstein’s family. His daughters, Susanna and Marta, and his grandson, Stefano, put aside other plans to make the trip to Budapest, along with Antonio Comi, the sporting director of Torino. The evening before the tournament began, they joined directors of BAK and Corinthian- Casuals at a special reception hosted by the British ambassador to Hungary, Iain Lindsay. The event was held to celebrate the two stories that had come together to form the basis of the tournament: the life of Ernő Erbstein and the impact of Corinthian FC on the development and popularisation of Hungarian football. For the tournament organisers, it was recognition of a year’s hard work. For Susanna and Marta Egri, it was an opportunity to hear their family name championed at a reception held in the same Buda hills that they were once forced to flee under cover of night as Hungarian fascists roamed the district looking for Jews.
The following day, I arrived at the Szőnyi úti Stadion about an hour before the opening game of the tournament kicked off and the place was already alive with activity. The ground is situated in the area where BAK’s original home ground had been located, and as kick- off approached on June 15, dozens of English football fans, many of them in bright pink Corinthian-Casuals shirts the same colour as their sunburned faces2, descended on the sports bar outside. Soon, the drinks and the songs were flowing and there was a lively, optimistic atmosphere building. The locals who had come down to discover this new tournament seemed pleasantly surprised to see how many people had travelled from London just to be there.
The first match was between BAK and Corinthian-Casuals, and the approximately 300-strong crowd were strung out around the ground, taking up various spots in the main stand under the oddly shaped yellow and blue roof or on the concrete terraces opposite, framed by six enormous old floodlight pylons.
One of the most intriguing elements of pitting non-league teams from different countries against each other is the surprise factor. Before departing London, the Casuals manager James Bracken had asked me how the Hungarian sides had approached the game during my previous visits to Budapest and when I arrived at the stadium, a BAK full-back came up to me, seemingly shocked by the athleticism of the Casuals players after observing their warm-up. Similarly, a local journalist couldn’t believe that the English club had a full backroom staff, all decked out in club-branded tracksuits.
The two set-ups were a long way apart, but nobody really knew if the quality gap would match it.
The answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, either. The first half was what accepted football parlance has taught us to call ‘cagey’, as the heat dictated the tempo and both teams looked to settle into a rhythm. After half-time, however, Corinthian-Casuals stepped up the intensity, at which point it became clear that they had the edge in most departments. They scored the opening goal early in the second half and then took a stranglehold of the game, eventually progressing to the final as 3-0 winners.
It hadn’t been a complete mismatch, though, and nobody was in any doubt that the occasion was more important than the result. Both teams took the time to applaud the supporters in each stand after the final whistle and the small crowd spontaneously broke into a chorus of “Come on you Casuals!” followed by chants of “B-A-K! B-A-K!” as the two sets of players came together for an impromptu group photo. It was a poignant moment for those of us that had sought to bring the two clubs together.
The second semi-final – an all- Hungarian affair – was much more one-sided, as fourth-tier Testvériség ran out 8-0 winners over BEAC, who play two levels further down the pyramid. However, BEAC were a much sterner proposition the following day, when they led 1-0 in the third-place playoff against BAK until a thunderstorm forced the teams off midway through the second half, but the hosts returned after the break looking the fitter, more determined side and scored twice in the closing stages. The winning goal was a spectacular long-range strike, scored with the last kick of the game, leading to unexpectedly wild celebrations among the small blue-and-black contingent in the main stand.
As the final approached, with half the crowd tipping Casuals and the other half sensing that Testvériség had looked stronger the previous day, both the original Corinthian Cup and the new version were displayed in the main stand for the supporters to pose with before they were awarded to the winners. Symbolically, the Corinthian-Casuals players then emerged from the tunnel wearing specially made jerseys bearing the names of the Grande Torino players, in honour of Erbstein’s great team.
Then the action began, officiated by 2011 Champions League final referee Viktor Kassai, and this game was of an altogether different standard to the previous three. Both sides were well- organised and technically impressive, demonstrating how far the game has come at non-league and amateur level in the past few years. Improved fitness and the drip-down effect of modern academies has transformed grassroots football and the Egri Erbstein Tournament aims to showcase that. The game remained in the balance right until the 91st minute, when the Corinthian-Casuals striker Harry Ottaway finished off a flowing counterattack to ensure that the new Corinthian Cup came home with the team that created its predecessor 114 years previously. For the Casuals supporters, who filled the bars of Budapest with chants of “Champions of Europe!” long into the night, it was as though their team had won a major continental trophy. For the organisers, meanwhile, those passionate celebrations were proof that the Egri Erbstein Tournament could well become an important part of the amateur football calendar in the years ahead.
“Our biggest goal is that we can extend the tournament,” announced Molnár at the end of an emotional weekend. “We really want to have something for the future and we’d like to have a continuation. At the end of the day, we want to have a tournament which is a real international meeting point for amateur teams all over the world.”