Notorious match-fixer Solti’s game of fine margins echoes down the years | Match-fixing

For Liverpool, Wednesday’s Champions League tie against Internazionale will inevitably conjure memories of 1965. Leading 3-1 from the first leg of their first European Cup semi-final, Liverpool went to San Siro and lost 3-0 in a game that players insist was fixed. The first Inter goal was scored direct from a free-kick they believed to be indirect, the second after the ball was nicked from the goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence as he bounced it before clearing.

The evidence in that instance is circumstantial, although as Brian Glanville noted in an investigation into match-fixing in the Sunday Times almost a decade later, Italian sides did remarkably well when the referee who officiated that game, José María Ortiz de Mendíbil, was in charge. There had been some very strange decisions as well in the previous year’s semi-final when Inter had beaten Borussia Dortmund, but the first concrete evidence of fixing came the following year.

As the Hungarian journalist Péter Borenich revealed in his 1983 book Csak a labdán van bőr, ”Only the Ball has a Skin”, Budapest in the 1960s and 70s became the nexus of European match-fixing. At its heart was the Hungarian Dezső Solti, who had approached the referee György Vadás, offering him enough money for “five, six Mercedes” to ensure Inter beat Real Madrid in the semi-final first leg. But Vadás refused, the game finished 1-1 and it was Madrid who went on to beat Partizan in the 1966 final.

By 1983, Solti was already serving a ban from football for his part in the scandal exposed by Glanville, having offered the Portuguese referee Francisco Marques Lobo $5,000 and a car if he ensured Juventus beat Derby in the semi-final of the 1973 European Cup. Lobo reported the approach and is generally deemed to have officiated the second leg fairly but the damage had been done in the first leg, which Juve won 3-1. Brian Clough was so certain the game had been fixed that the Derby manager’s post-match press conference consisted of a single sentence: “I will not speak to cheating bastards; to cheating bastards I will not speak.” As he left, he turned to Glanville: “Translate that for them, Brian.”

Derby County’s Kevin Hector (right) and Luciano Spinosi of Juventus compete for the ball during the European Cup Semi Final 1st Leg at the Stadio Comunale on April 11, 1973 in Turin.
Kevin Hector (right) and Luciano Spinosi compete for the ball during Derby’s 3-1 defeat by Juventus in the first leg of the 1973 European Cup semi-final, a game Brian Clough claimed had been fixed. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

If Solti is remembered at all now, it is as a bogeyman, but his story is far more complicated than that. He was born Dezső Steinberger in 1912 to a family of merchants in Balmazújváros, a small town 20 miles north-west of Debrecen. In 1944, after the German invasion of Hungary, he was rounded up with the area’s other Jews and sent to Auschwitz.

His immediate family was killed within hours of arrival but Steinberger was physically fit and so used as labour. He played in goal for one of the camp football teams and began to secure favours by informing on other prisoners. At some point in the winter of 1944-45, Steinberger fixed an SS officer’s car. Impressed by his linguistic ability and general usefulness, the officer began to use Steinberger as a runner and general factotum. That officer was Josef Mengele.

As Soviet forces closed in, Steinberger went on one of the death marches west. Having spent time at Dachau and Mühldorf-Mettenheim he was packed on a train to be taken into the mountains and massacred. However, a local Wehrmacht commander, in a fit of conscience, delayed the train to ensure it would be intercepted by US forces. The US housed him in a temporary camp at Feldafing near Munich, and he was interviewed over his links with Mengele before, eventually, being returned to Hungary. The war had changed him. “I was weakened in everything,” he wrote in his memoir. “I was weak in character, in will, in everything. Auschwitz burned everything.”

He was approached by the ÁVH, the Hungarian secret police. Péter Veres, the head of the National Peasants Party, who was the biggest opponent of the Communist programme of collectivisation, was also from Balmazújváros. Did Steinberger know him, and could he trap him into something that would force him to resign? He could, and he did.

As a reward, Steinberger said he wanted to leave the country. The ÁVH told him it could be done if he qualified for an entertainer’s visa. So Steinberger trained as a stage magician and, in 1949, he was granted a passport, issued in the name Dezső Solti. He left for Italy with six female dancers he claimed were essential to his act, but it is clear from ÁVH records that this was cover for trafficking prostitutes.

In Milan, Solti met the great coach Béla Guttmann, another Hungarian Jew. It was Solti’s car, imported from the US, that Guttmann was driving (without a licence) when he struck and killed a 17-year-old student. Solti took the blame for long enough that Guttmann was able to leave the country and avoid the courts. Solti worked with football clubs as an agent – and then more. In March 1990, Solti spent a day with the film director Béla Szobolits, who was researching a documentary.

“He was good-humoured with a mischievous look in his eyes,” Szobolits said. “He talked a lot about women. He was very religious, sensitive, easily moved.

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“He lived alone in a very average two-bedroom apartment in Milan. Every day he got up at 7am and prayed for an hour. He would read passages from the Torah. There was a Jewish jeweller of about his age from Romania who came round between 10 and 12 every day. Solti would have lunch alone and sleep. Then, he read the newspapers and went into the town centre for an ice cream. He read philosophy after that. He would have his evening meal, then stand in the window looking over the city, taking in the fresh air, before going to bed after midnight.”

Solti didn’t exactly come clean, but he did admit he had at times given gold watches to referees. “Football is a game of fine margins,” he told Szobolits. “All we did was try to ensure those were not against Inter. If a free-kick is going to be given one way or the other, we wanted to make sure we were seen as the victim not the opposition.”

Just another ambiguity in a life lived in a world of limited morality.

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