The lost legacy of Lippo Hertzka, the foreigner who won Real Madrid's first league title

The man who lifted Madrid's first ever league trophy was a 27-year-old Hungarian whose name is largely unknown today.

The lost legacy of Lippo Hertzka, the foreigner who won Real Madrid's first league title
The forgotten legacy of Lippo Hertzka, the man who won Real Madrid's first league title

When your club's trophy cabinet is as cramped as that of Real Madrid, it is perhaps understandable that the older, dustier cups at the back go neglected, unnoticed, or forgotten.

Then again, they say you never forget your first.

It is a fact which is easy to understand but difficult to conceive, but Real Madrid was once a club without a league title to its name.

Before the inception of the Primera División in the late 1920s, the Copa del Rey had been Spain’s premier football competition. Founded in 1902 as Madrid FC, the club latterly known as Real were beaten in the first ever final by Athletic Bilbao the following year, before five victories in the next two decades established the club as one of the country’s leading sporting lights.

When the Spanish league as we know it today finally came to be in 1929, Madrid – having gained the title ‘Real’ under King Alfonso XIII – were beaten finalists in the cup and behind Barcelona and Athletic in terms of domestic silverware.

Spanish totem Real Madrid won their first title under a Hungarian manager

Four seasons passed before the King’s team were crowned champions of Spain in a manner recognisable today, though Alfonso had fled the country due to the coming of the Spanish Second Republic before he saw it realised. Real, the club of the Spanish capital and the Spanish royal family, with their fully Spanish squad, lifted their first ever Spanish league title under the supervision of a Hungarian manager. That man was Lippo Hertzka.

Hertzka is a man whose memory has largely been forgotten as the Spanish footballing clock has tiki'd and taka'd through the decades.. The bare facts of his career, his life, are starkly available online. He was born in Budapest in 1904, the year Athletic were awarded the Copa del Rey without a final being played, and died at the age of 46 in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal.

Hertzka (L) during his playing career | Photo:
Hertzka (L) during his playing career | Photo:

He was a striker, turning out for Essener Turnerbund, MTK Budapest and Real Sociedad during his playing career and beginning his coaching career at the latter of the three.

By the time he arrived in the Spanish capital in 1930, he had already managed Sociedad and Athletic with little success. But, in the 1931-32 season, he scrawled his name into the history books in block capitals and indelible ink.

The La Liga landscape was very different in 1931. An 18-match season with just ten teams including names such as Arenas Club de Getxo and Union Club Irún, the clubs were heavily concentrated on the Northern coast of the country and none more southerly than Valencia in the East.

Where modern Madrid teams are built on the Pérezian philosophy of throwing money at attackers and hoping to outgun whatever team stands in their way, Hertzka was a master in the art of defence and laid the foundations of his historic title through strangling the life out of opponents at the back.

With legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora between the posts and fabled defensive icon Jacinto Quincoces marshalling the defence ahead of him, Madrid conceded just 15 league goals all campaign, eight fewer than the next best in the division.

Specifics are difficult to come by, but Hertzka structured his side in some form of 2-5-3 formation. It was likely an adaptation of the 2-3-5 set-up which was popular in Central and Eastern Europe at the time, particularly in Austria, Hertzka’s homeland of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Ricardo Zamora, last of the gentleman goalkeepers | Photo:
Ricardo Zamora, last of the gentleman goalkeepers | Photo:

Madrid were the lowest scorers in the top three that season but, curiously, one of six sides to notch between 34 and 37 goals. Theirs came primarily from prolific one-cap wonder Manuel Olivares and Jaime Lazcano, a man remembered chiefly for scoring the first ever La Liga goal in 1929.

"Madrid were left looking not only upwards, but outwards"

However, it is not the detail of Hertzka’s time at Madrid that is necessarily the most significant. Rather, it is the legacy he left behind and the direction in which the club were left facing when he left the club in 1932 – not only upwards, but outwards. From the moment Hungarian-managed Madrid were crowned champions after a two-all draw at Barcelona on the final day, foreign influence was forever etched into the fate of the club. 

Where pre-war dominant force Athletic would choose the Basque route and Barcelona would go on to foster themselves the image of the nursery of Spanish football, Madrid would become the premier destination for the world’s internationally-minded stars.

Another Hungarian, Ferenc Puskás, led the way and forged himself such an identity in the Madrid white that he would follow his 84 Hungary caps with four for Spain. Alfredo Di Stéfano, a man with ten combined appearances for Argentina and Colombia, would do the same.

Ferenc Puskas was not the only Hungarian to leave his mark on Madrid | Photo:
Ferenc Puskas was not the only Hungarian to leave his mark on Madrid | Photo:

Raymond Kopa, Günter Netzer, Hugo Sánchez, Ronaldos one and two, Gareth Bale. Countless international icons whose path to the gilded dressing room of the world’s primary superclub had its first flagstone laid by a Hungarian striker most modern fans will never have heard of.

Arthur Johnson, an Englishman, brought Madrid their first cup. Santiago Bernabéu, a Spaniard, defined them. But Lippo Hertzka made them kings.