Historical Football #4 – The Paper-Man

This edition of Historical Football looks at the captain and star of the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the 1930s, Matthias Sindelar…

Nearly every decade had a great international team – the 70s had the Dutch Total Football side, the 50s had the Magic Magyars and the 1930s had the Austrian Wunderteam. Seen by some as the originators of the Total Football style of play, they dominated opponents with their beautiful football and often routed them by five or six goals. Led by Hugo Meisl on the touchline, it contained legendary Austrian players such as Josef Smistik and Walter Nausch but the star was the captain – Matthias Sindelar.

Born on 10 February 1903 in Moravia in Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic), Sindelar’s family moved to Vienna when he was still an infant. It was there, amongst the famous coffee shops, that Sindelar began his footballing journey. He and his friends never had a proper football and instead played with one made of rags and cloth that had been sewn together. He quickly stood out with his incredible ball control and dribbling and, at age 16, was finally signed by an organised club.

He impressed in the youth set-up at Hertha Vienna and, by 18 years of age, he was already in the first team. It was at Hertha that he earned the nickname “Papierene” (paper-man) due to his slight build and general avoidance of physical contact on the pitch. SIndelar settled quickly in the first team and began scoring regularly for Hertha. However, his career almost ended before it began in 1923 when he sustained a serious knee injury in a non-football accident. Fortunately, he had successful surgery and returned a year later but, by that time, Hertha had been relegated and were in financial trouble, leading to Sindelar joining Austria Vienna.

Sindelar was a hugely skillful player
Sindelar was a hugely skillful player

It was with Austria Vienna that Sindelar experienced his most success. He was instrumental as the club won the league in 1926 as well as five Austrian Cups during his time there. SIndelar quickly became one of the most popular figures not just at the club but in all of Vienna. Sindelar quickly earned sponsorship deals for everything from watches to dairy products. There was even a Sindelar branded football released! However, Austria Vienna was not the side that would propel Sindelar into the worldwide consciousness. It was the “Wunderteam”.

Called up for the first time at just 23 years old, Sindelar scored four in his first three internationals but was very quickly left out due to perceived selfishness from manager Hugo Meisl. However, he was brought back into the fold a couple of years later due to public pressure and the impact was immediate. He got a hat trick on his return in a 5-0 rout of Scotland and this triggered the beginning of the “Wunderteam”. Led by Sindelar, they destroyed their opponents thanks to Sindelar’s creativity, passing and goals. They were favourites for the 1934 World Cup but were undone by awful conditions and the brutal marking of Luis Monti on Sindelar in the semi final defeat to Italy. This proved to be the high point for the Wunderteam. Meisl died in 1937 and the Anschluss saw the Austrian players forced to play for a joint team. Sindelar refused and caused even more anger amongst the Nazi higher ups during an exhibition game between the Germans and Austrians to “celebrate” the Anschluss. Sindelar and the Austrians were docile for most of the game before Sindelar and Karl Sesta scored late on. Sindelar then celebrated rather enthusiastically in front of the Nazi dignitaries. This wouldn’t be the first time Sindelar would get under the Nazi’s skins.

Sindelar's slight build earned him the nickname of "paper-man"
Sindelar’s slight build earned him the nickname of “paper-man”

 

As the Nazi rule began to restrict the Jewish community in Vienna, Sindelar still openly kept friendships and relationships with Jews. Austria Vienna were torn apart due to the Jewish connections of the club but Sindelar was still a constant for the club throughout. Not only that but Sindelar refused call ups to the joint international team as well. There were, reportedly, numerous attempts by the Nazi regime to try and get him to toe the line but he always refused. This refusal has fueled the speculation and rumours over his death.

Sindelar was found dead in his home with his girlfriend on 23 January 1939, naked and on the floor. The official cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning although many have speculated that he was murdered by the Nazis. There have been claims of murder from friends of the player and that the coroner was bribed to call it an accident so Sindelar could receive a state funeral. The truth has never been truly revealed and, most likely, never will be but the one concrete fact is that Austria mourned his loss. Thousands turned out for his funeral as Vienna lost a beloved son. 

The impact of Sindelar in Austria can never be underestimated. He was voted the 22nd best player of all time in 2001 and Austria’s greatest player of the 20th century. His passing, creativity and natural skill made him one of the first global stars of football with his popularity even reaching the United States. A truly great player whose legend, in death, grew larger.

Stay tuned for the next Historical Football on Wednesday.

Thanks!

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