The Czech Dream Team that shocked Europe a century ago

BarcelonaFor many years, the world looked enviously towards central Europe, the region where some of the best footballers on the planet came from. His teams would star in a lot of tours around the rest of the continent to train and test their style of play, with numerous visits to Catalonia after the First World War, matches that were key in the growth of local football, like the famous Christmas friendlies with Sparta Prague in 1921. History, which does not follow a straight line and takes twists and turns, has made Eastern European football now look with envy at what happens in the south, when decades ago it was the other way around. A Barça in crisis in the Champions League is still stronger today than any club in central Europe, such as Viktoria Pilsen. For the Barça club, it will be the debut in the historic city of Bohemia, since the previous duel between the two teams on Czech soil, in 2011, was played in Prague because the Viktoria stadium was not in good condition. The history of Barça cannot be understood without the duels against teams from central Europe and the players from these lands. Barça, who in 1933 played friendly games with SK Pilsen, another club from the city famous for its brewing industry, since they invented beer pilsener, got sick of hosting Czech teams in the 20s and 30s. But there was one that was different from the others.

One of the most curious and forgotten visits was that of May 1923 by Maccabi Brno, a club founded by the Jewish community of this Czech city that became at the time the most controversial club in the Old Continent. The club, which disappeared after the Holocaust, was defeated at the Corts field by Barça in two friendlies, first by 4-1 and then by 2-0, at a time when it had become a kind of Harlem Globetrotters from the center of Europe, as he signed some of the best players of the moment, going beyond the borders of Czechoslovakia. When he arrived in Barcelona, ​​the press reported on each of his footballers the club where he had played before, as Maccabi sometimes paid very high salaries just to play on tours and then let them go back to teams like MTK Budapest or the ‘Slavia of Prague. The fact that it was one of the first clubs to bet on professionalism to make money led to a few scandals at a time when the desired model of sport was being debated, but where anti-Semitism was also rife.

Maccabi had been founded just as many Jewish communities in central Europe were creating sports clubs within the idea known as muscular Judaism (Muscle Judaism). Promoted in 1903 by Max Nordau, it asked Jews to play sports in order to defend themselves when they suffered anti-Semitic attacks. If Orthodox Jews were men of faith who bowed their heads when attacked, entrusting their fate to God, a new modern generation wanted to practice sports and defend themselves. Entities such as Hakoah Vienna and Maccabi Brno would be famous for their swimming sections, boxing and football teams capable of winning titles. The footballers of these clubs played in blue and white shirts, with the Star of David on the chest. The borders of Europe that emerged after the First World War, however, did not fully explain a territory that was always multi-ethnic, with different languages ​​and religions mixed together. In Brno, for example, there were different communities that organize themselves in sports separately, without integrating much with each other, as was the case with clubs such as Vorwärts Brünn (the team of the Germans), Moravska Slávia Brno (the team of the Czechs) and the Maccabi of the Jews.

The Second World War, with the passing of Nazism and the subsequent arrival of communism, would end almost all of these clubs. Forgotten teams, but which were very important, such as Deustcher from Prague, who would also play friendlies with Barça. A team formed by the German-speaking people of Prague, where Germans and Jews curiously came together, since much of the Jewish community in Prague spoke German, such as Kafka, whose letters are preserved in which he talks about club football matches such as Hakoah in Vienna or Maccabi in Brno. Independent Czechoslovakia was a mosaic of languages ​​and identities, to the extent that five different football federations were founded in the country, which organized the local tournaments from which the clubs fighting to be national champions emerged: the Football Association Czechoslovakia was based in Prague; the German, in Brno; the Hungarian, in Bratislava; the Jewish, in Brno, and the Polish minority, in Trinec.

One country, five football federations

The history of the Czechs was also written in the sports grounds at that time when, for example, Czechoslovakia was famous for sokola Czech nationalist gymnastic movement that was imitated in Catalonia, where the Falcons were founded imitating those Slavic gymnasts who did incredible compositions. Sokol actually means hawk. Sport was a source of pride for communities that wanted to build a better future, that had felt like second-class citizens in empires that were now disappearing. In the post-war years there was an unprecedented increase in the number of spectators at football, and this led many entrepreneurs to understand that they could make money from it.

The better football was played, the more tickets came. And that amateur sport gave way to a professional one where the teams tried to sign the best players of the rivals, since this would give them fame and profits, both for themselves and for the causes they could defend. At Maccabi Brno, founded by young idealists who wanted to defend their community and had Zionist ideas, i.e. to create a Jewish state one day, the success of football transformed a club where only local players played and turned it into in a kind of Dream Team that for three years would bring together some of the best players in central Europe.

A tailor acting as a coach

And partly thanks to the textile business, so important in Brno. Some entrepreneurs in the sector invested in Maccabi Brno and managed to sign Jewish players from other cities, such as Prague, Pilsen, Bratislava and, later, from other countries, such as Hungary. Officially, the players did not have a salary from the club, but they were employed by the textile companies, where they only went at the end of the month to get paid. It was a very common deception at the time. In 1922 Maccabi would sign one of the best Hungarian players of the time, Gyula Feldmann, from MTK, who would also coach the club even though he officially came to the city to work as a tailor. The managers of Maccabi, after each victory, wanted more. And they decided to go further, starting to sign non-Jewish players, especially Hungarians. In 1923, when they visited Barcelona, ​​they had 17 players from Hungary in the team.

Then the Czech and Hungarian nationalist press began to attack them. And a Hungarian nationalist newspaper defined this club as follows: “It is a club that was created under the world Zionist flag, because a few fanatical Orthodox Zionists wanted to exploit the sweat of others. They wave the Zionist flag to defend the most convenient racial propaganda in the sporting field. This, of course, required athletic achievements and victories that proclaimed their racial strength. But the Czech Jews, with their weak chests, crooked legs, emaciated figures, and big noses, are sick and would be defeated in the first kick of every match. So they sent their well-paid agents to Budapest to attract away players for the entire Brno team, both Jews and Christians. They organized this white slavery, which deprived many clubs in Budapest of their best players, with the help of well-paying positions and without the obligation to work or having to take care of clothing, food and lodging.”

Anti-Zionism turned Maccabi into the most hated club of the moment. The most insulted man was Mr. Kellner, the club president, a German-speaking Jew who met the players at the town’s Café Tonethof, where people who spoke Yiddish, German, Hungarian, Czech or Slovak mingled. Maccabi was a club that understood the business behind football, but it also became a multicultural club at a time when radical nationalism was growing.

An offer from Barça

In 1923 the club would make its famous tour of Spain, where it was defeated twice by Barça, but it did manage to defeat Real Madrid on two occasions. The team’s coach, Gyula Feldmann, said that Madrid journalists had “only seen the best English professional teams play in the same style as Maccabi” and that to explain Barcelona’s defeats it was necessary to understand that the team had arrived tired after a long journey. On the tour, by the way, the local press often used the name Moravia de Brno to talk about Maccabi, as the club chose to use that name to try to avoid sanctions when they toured, since they did so by giving up matches in the his local competitions and without openly hiding that he hired footballers professionally.

In some cases he played a subsidiary team in local tournament matches when the professionals were on tour. Ernő Schwarz, one of the team’s stars, would explain that Barça wanted to sign him after the two games in Catalonia and that the Catalan club paid Maccabi 40,000 Czech crowns for the two games, a figure that was equivalent to everyone’s salary the players for two months. Players then very famous in Hungary such as Ferenc Hirzer or the famous Árpád Weisz signed for a Maccabi that would be able to defeat the Austrian champion, Rapid, by 1-4 in Vienna. Or make the big clubs in Prague suffer, like Slavia. In an Italian tour, Juve were also defeated and Maccabi were able to draw 1-1 with the Italian national team. Weisz would stay to live in Italy, where he was the first great coach of Inter Milan. He was killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1945.

And Maccabi Brno? Everything changed in 1924, when the Czech Football Association banned the club from signing Christian players. In fact, it was a new law that said teams from the local Jewish association could only play with Jews. In Brno they always thought it was a move by Sparta Prague to sign the Christian players they had, just when the Czechoslovak nationalist press was attacking them for having few Czech players, and the Hungarian nationalist press was targeting them , especially after the 1924 Amsterdam Olympics, when eight of the Hungarian team’s starters played for Maccabi. Hungary, however, surprisingly went down in the second round against Egypt and a Hungarian parliamentarian blamed Maccabi for the whole thing: “The disaster was caused by players who returned from abroad bribed with money and without a Hungarian conscience.”

It was the beginning of the end of the club, as the entrepreneurs who put up the money tried to create a new club called Blue Star, which could continue to play with their foreign footballers based in Bratislava. When registering the new club, however, they caused an investigation by the Czechoslovak Federation which ended up decreeing the death of the new entity for having tried to circumvent the sports law of the time, while Maccabi became an amateur clun , forgotten, until the arrival of the Nazis ended its existence. Some of the survivors tried to recover it in 1946, but the new communist authorities did not support the idea. And the club that had planted its face in the middle of Europe closed its page in the history of European football. A book where the paths of Barça and Czech football have crossed many times, although curiously only one Czech has played for Barça. And his story is also amazing as he fought on the barricades. This, however, is a different story, we told it here.


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