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Who Was New York’s Best Ever Jewish Soccer Player?

Once the stomping ground of world soccer stars, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Chinaglia (not to mention Mordechai Spiegler, Israel’s highest ever goal scorer), New York is again a formidable force in North American soccer.

As well as Spiegler, the two players who might actually argue over being the best soccer player ever to play for a New York team were Erno Schwarz and Béla Guttmann, two Hungarians from the famed Hakoah Vienna team that celebrated its Jewishness in its name (Hakoah is the Hebrew word for “strength”) and badge (a Star of David, for millennia a Jewish symbol). Attracting top Jewish players from all over Europe, it was the uncrowned champion of Europe in the early 1920s.

Hakoah played “10 games in half a dozen American cities” after its 1926 domestic season. Like recent friendlies that Israel has played in America (one of which saw Moyal’s international debut), the crowds consisted significantly of Jews, curious about this proud sporting team. The Forward reported that when the team played the New York Giants, the “Polo Grounds looked like a mass Jewish meeting.”

It was front-page news when the Brooklyn Wanderers played Hakoah on May 22, 1926, at Hawthorne Field in Brooklyn. Nat Agar, a Jewish CPA originally from Yorkshire, England, was the manager of the Wanderers and a prime mover in the founding of early American soccer leagues. He was one of the people responsible for inviting Hakoah to play in America and, when the team left, was one of the people responsible for inviting players to stay in America, where anti-Semitism was far less invidious.

Schwarz, a former Hungarian national player, signed for the New York Giants soccer team after the Hakoah tour. In a storied three-decade career in America, Schwarz played for, founded and owned the New York Americans, helped found a new soccer league and later coached the United States men’s national soccer team in the 1950s. As late as 1960 he became the general manager of yet another league, the International Soccer League.

As a player, Bela Guttmann was on a par with Schwarz (though a defender, not a forward). As a coach and a strategist, though, he would go on to be more successful than any other Jewish manager. His first coaching experience was in New York with Hakoah All-Stars and would culminate in him winning the European Cup twice in a row with Benfica, beating Barcelona in 1961 and Real Madrid in 1962.

After that second successive European championship, Guttmann asked for a pay raise. On being turned down, he left the club and, legend has it, cursed the club — “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion.” Since then the club has reached eight European finals and lost them all.

The impact of the 1926 Hakoah tour on the Jewish community was so great that a summer camp — Camp Hakoah — was set up to capitalize on its success. Headed up by boxer Benny Leonard, it sold itself (in a Forward ad, May 1926) as a national athletic sports camp to train children to the “highest level of physical well-being” where “soccer is one of the specialties.”

And, as well as inculcating muscular Jewishness, it was good value for readers of the Forward. Parents could send away their children away for a nine-week session to become “the avant-garde of the Jewish people, protecting them from every assault by our enemies,” and all for a bargain $175.

Dan Friedman is the executive editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @danfriedmanme

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