“He had brains in his legs and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running,” revered Austrian intellect and journalist Alfred Polgar once stated.
You may be wondering how a man who passed away in 1955 could possibly have spoken of Lionel Messi’s incredible talents. It’s simply impossible - the 5 foot 7 Argentine wasn’t born for another three decades and wouldn’t make his Barcelona debut for another 50 years.
No, Polgar wasn’t a clairvoyant with the supernatural ability to predict the rise of the next football superstar. In fact, he was actually talking about the incredible Austrian striker Matthias Sindelar, who guided the nation through the greatest period in their footballing past, and is widely regarded as the greatest Austrian footballer of all time.
Like everything, football goes through different phases. England fans will remember the frustrating period of long ball football that we had to endure throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Total Football was all the rage in the 60s and 70s, due to the dominance of Ajax, led by the brilliant Johan Cruyff. Quick, attacking, pass-and-move football is the ‘preferred’ style of play in the modern era, largely due to the achievements of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side between 2008 and 2012.
These changes are frequent, yet it still takes a special kind of player to completely change the way football is played. Matthias Sindelar is one such player.
When Sindelar first started to play the beautiful game back in the mid 1920s, physical play was all the rage, and that remained largely the same throughout his time on the field. The game struggled to shred the rugby-like elements that it has inherited, with crunching tackles and unchallenged violence the norm. You only have to look at the sheer number of fouls that players like Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard draw now to understand how difficult it would have been for a similar player to perform in the past, at a time when the vast majority of those challenges would have been considered fair and legal.
Yet, Sindelar did it. Standing at 5 foot 9 and well known for his slim build, which earned him the nickname ‘Der Papierene’, or ‘The Paper Man’, the Austrian centre forward should have been nullified by the physical players that surrounded him. Yet, his quick feet and (at the time) unrivalled creativity allowed him to dribble effortlessly towards the goal, on his way to becoming one of the greatest footballers of all time.
Moving to Vienna
Despite turning out for Austria throughout his international career, Sindelar is actually of Czech descent. The talented footballer was born in February 1903 in Kozlov, Moravia, which formerly made up part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War 1, but is now located within the Czech Republic. Despite some suggestion that Sindelar was Jewish, his parents Jan Sindelar, a blacksmith, and Marie Sindelar, a stay-at-home mother, were actually practicing Catholics.
Unsurprisingly, given his parents’ occupations, money was tight in the Sindelar household. Chasing better opportunities for both them and their son, the family decided to relocate the Austrian capital, Vienna, when Matthias was just two years old.
They eventually settled in the the Favoriten district, which had amassed a large community of Czech immigrants. While Vienna was by then known as a city full of beauty and culture, Favoriten didn’t quite fit the bill. In fact, the area was well known for being run down and full of poverty. Yet, had the family not arrived in Austria, Sindelar may never have discovered the talent that he possessed on the football pitch.
Vienna was and remain to this day well known for its love of music, having been called home by the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Likewise, it was also well known for its intellectuals, with the likes of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, two huge figures in the world of psychology, once among its residents. However, following the creation of the Austrian national team in 1904 and the arrival of amateur clubs, such as Wiener Cricketer, at the end of the decade, Vienna found a third passion to add to the list - football.
The sport boomed in popularity over the next decade and, despite the chaotic nature of the sport, Vienna found a way to introduce it to their way of life. Vienna was known for its abundance of coffee houses, in which the locals would meet to play chess, read the newspaper or hold debates. Yet, soon enough, they were finding the time between discussions of art, literature and politics to debate the beautiful game.
In fact, each of Vienna’s football clubs had their own coffee shop, where supporters, players and owners would meet together in support of their team, as well as another venue where supporters of all clubs were welcome. While it may seem unthinkable now, given the intense and often violent rivalries in the modern game, rival fans were able to discuss the game in a calm and intellectual manner, which ultimately helped to produce the first generation of intellectual footballers and helped to made the game the tactical affair that it is today.
Unsurprisingly, the young Sindelar, who had slotted into life as a Viennese effortlessly, shared his city’s love for football.
Becoming Austria's star player
At the age of 15, the youngster caught the attention of ASV Hertha Vienna, who quickly snapped him up for their youth team. While the club weren’t among the best sides in Austria, they provided him a way into the sport.
Within four years Sindelar had risen through the ranks into the Hertha Vienna first-team. He would spend two years playing at the highest level with his first club, before receiving an irresistible offer from FK Austria Wien, then known as Wiener Amateur-SV. Sindelar’s phenomenal potential was beginning to show, but Hertha Vienna found themselves in a difficult financial position. They had just suffered relegation from the top flight and were unable to turn down the offer that they received. Likewise, for Sindelar, switching clubs also provided him with the opportunity to compete for major honours.
By that point, the club had made a name for themselves as one of the four best sides in the country and had finished as runners-up behind city rivals SK Rapid Wien in the 1922/23 campaign, before claiming their first ever league title in the following season. However, despite their success, Sindelar managed to take the club to the next level.
The Austrian goalscorer proved to be an instant hit - the Wiener Amateur-SV fans watched on as their new star danced through heavy challenges, keeping control of possession and moving effortlessly towards the goal. In fact, Sindelar managed to make an impact in his very first season, claiming the first major honour of his career, as the club lifted the Austrian Cup for a second consecutive year.
The club were unable to retain their title, missing out to Hakoah Vienna by just two points, but they bounced back in the 1925/26 season to produce yet another double, earning Sindelar what would be the only league title in his trophy cabinet.
All in all, Sindelar’s club career was somewhat modest. He hung up his boots with one Austrian Football Championship title, five Austrian Cups and two Mitropa Cup winners’ medals to his name. Despite their early successes, Wiener Amateur-SV, by then renamed as FK Austria Wien, spent much of their early history as a mid-table side. However, it was on the international stage where Sindelar managed to showcase his phenomenal talents.
Sindelar made his international debut in 1926, soon after leading Austria Wien to the league title. Four goals in his first three international appearances suggested that Sindelar was destined to make a huge impact in the Austrian national team.
However, a falling out with iconic manager Hugo Meisl would eventually see him expelled from the international set-up in 1928. Meisl was a strict coach who demanded discipline from all of his player, regardless of their status. Yet, by this point Sindelar was recognised as one of the nation’s stars and was living the high life that many high-profile players now lead. Sindelar liked cars, women and gambling, and that went completely against Meisl’s beliefs.Between October 1928 and May 1931, Sindelar made just one appearance for Austria, which came in the 1931/32 Central European International Cup, which the nation went on to win.
While Meisl had built a solid machine, Austria lacked the creative spark that they needed to dominate, and the pressure soon built for Meisl to reintroduce Sindelar to his plans. That moment came on May 16th 1931, as Sindelar was called up to face Scotland. A goal in what was a dominate performance, with Austria earning a 5-0 victory, cemented his place in the side and prompted a run of 19 games without suffering defeat.
Their lengthy run eventually came to an end in December 1932, as they suffered a 4-3 loss to England in a game that even the British press acknowledged was a lucky feat. Yet, they had emerged as one of the best teams in the world and looked raring to go as the second ever World Cup tournament approached.
By the time the prestigious tournament got underway in 1934, Sindelar had amassed 21 goals in 29 matches for his country and was viewed as the one to watch. Unsurprisingly, his high standing meant that he was often on the receiving end of rough play, as teams attempted to boot him out of the game. Yet, despite their attempts, Austria managed to make it all the way to the semi-finals, before crashing out against host nation Italy.
So the story goes, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini has dined with the referee on the evening prior to the game and a wad of banknotes somehow found their way into the official’s pocket, according to fellow Czech-Austrian star Josef Bican.
Despite playing three more years under Meisl before his death in 1937 brought the Wunder-years to a close, Austria’s dominance faltered following the 1934 tournament, as stars such as Sindelar began to age. By the time the 1938 World Cup came around, Sindelar had reached the dreaded age of 33, when most players begin to consider retirement. Yet, despite qualifying, Austria would never make it to the World Cup, as Nazi Germany took their first steps in their attempts to rule the world.
Sindelar’s suspicious death
Amid pressure from Adolf Hitler, Austria was placed in the hands of Nazi Germany in March 1938 and the two nations were soon merged into one. Within a month of Austria falling under Nazi control, the Austrian FA was abolished. Jewish clubs were forced to disband and Jewish players and staff were forced to flee or face discrimination and death. Even Sindelar’s beloved FK Austria Wien were branded a ‘Judenklub’ (a term used to describe clubs with Jewish links during the Nazi era).
Unsurprisingly, the Wunderteam had caught the Nazi Party’s attention. The team was viewed as a powerful marketing tool due to the sheer love and support that they had amassed around the globe. It was soon announced that the German and Austrian national teams would become one, with one final exhibition match to be played between the two sides to celebrate the merge.
Supposedly, the Nazis ordered both teams to play out a low-scoring draw. While it remains unclear whether this was the case, Sindelar’s performance was certainly suspicious, as he continuously ran rings around the German team, only for his final shot to drift inches wide of the post every time. Many claim that he was purposely missing the target to mock the Germans. However, Sindelar did eventually put the ball in the back of the net, before making his way towards a spectator box containing high-profile Nazis, including Hitler, to dance and celebrate.
Unsurprisingly, Sindelar refused to join the new Germany team and soon after hung up his boots. Little did he know, that decision may have cost him his life.
Within a year of defying Nazi Germany, Sindelar was found dead in his newly purchased cafe in Vienna. Official reports suggest that the star had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by a faulty chimney.
Unsurprisingly, few people believe the ‘official’ verdict, which had been recorded by the police force. The most likely explanation, according to most, is murder at the hands of the Gestapo. While the truth remains a mystery, a man with strong connections to the Jewish community, who had defied the orders of Hitler on more than one occasion, turning up death just months later is certainly somewhat suspicious.