by Neil Jensen
Apart from a spell in the late 1970s when Hans Krankl was one of Europe’s most prolific strikers, Austrian football has spent many years in the shadows, despite being joint hosts of Euro 2008. It was during the football-fest of 2008 that an interesting exhibition in Vienna paid tribute to the history of the Austrian game, and in particular, a time when its national team was among the most feared in the world.
Das Wunderteam was its name, and for a few short years in the 1930s, Austria’s reputation was of a whirlwind team that brushed aside the opposition with ease. Although the canonisation of this talented group of players was partly attributable to an age of limited mass communication (it really was Britain against the Rest of the World), Austria’s record at the time (mostly built-up in games against Hungary, Switzerland and Czechoslavakia), deserves respect. Furthermore, there is little doubt that this team, managed by the Hugo Meisl, had a far-reaching impact on the future of football in Europe. Meisl, in many ways, was as influential on the shape of international football as Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman was on the domestic game in England in the 1930s. In some quarters, Meisl and his Wunderteam are considered to be the “godfathers of total football”.
Vision of the future
That’s some boast, but the fluid, organic style, where the player with the ball is supported by his team-mates and gaps are filled by whoever is closest at hand, was a vision of a future developed – initially by Hungary – by the Dutch and German teams of the early 1970s. This style allowed Austria’s fleet-footed team to move from defence to attack in a seamless manner and vice versa. It was not a million miles from the short-passing game adopted by Scotland, but it introduced wide-running half-backs and an attacking centre half, as well as a slightly deep-lying centre forward. It was a Brit, Jimmy Hogan, that helped shape Meisl’s footballing philosophy. Hogan’s story is interesting, for he became something of a pariah in Britain after spending World War One in Europe. But he became a pivotal figure in the growth of the game in Mitteleuropa and the Hungarian team of 1953, after humiliating England not once, but twice, claimed to be heavily influenced by the pioneering inside forward from Nelson, Lancashire.
Austria’s team of the early 1930s can be ranked among the best not to have been crowned World Cup winners. Meisl, who had coached the Austrian national team in the pre-WW1 period, returned to take charge once more in 1919. His team was mainly drawn from a very cosmopolitan Vienna. FK Austria, for example, was a club patronised by left-wing intellectuals, immigrant factory workers and the Jewish coffee-house set. Clubs like FK, Admira, Rapid and Wiener provided the bulk of Meisl’s squad.
The Mozart of football
Goalkeeper Rudi Hiden of Wiener was once the target of Arsenal, while half-back Walter Nausch was rated among the best in the world in his position. Centre-half Josef “Pepi” Smistik of Rapid Vienna was renowned for his speed and ability to pick out a player with long-balls out of defence. And then there was Josef Bican, a Czech-Austrian who scored 800-plus goals in his career with, amongst others, Rapid Vienna, Admira and Slavia Prague. He managed a goal-a-game for Austria and later played for Czechoslavakia. But the real jewel in Austria’s side was Matthias Sindelar, “Der Papierne” (the paper man), whose frail appearance belied a hugely talented player that was idolised by sporting Vienna. Sindelar was known as “the Mozart of football” and decades later, “the Pele of the interwar years”. In reality, he was a delicate, intuitive player who scored 27 goals in 43 games for Austria. Sindelar was “new Viennese”, reflecting the nature of post-WW1 Austria. Born of Catholic parents in Moravia, he grew up in the unfashionable district of Favoriten, a bastion of Marxism and radical behaviour. Although at first rejected by Hugo Meisl, who preferred a strong, English-type centre forward, “Sindi”, as he was known, became the figurehead of Austrian football. He was featured in advertisements and appeared in a film, “Roxy and the Wunderteam”. People even wrote poems about him!
Rise and fall
The team’s stock started to rise when they beat Scotland 5-0 in Vienna in May 1931. This was followed by a resounding 6-0 humiliation of Germany in troubled Berlin. Meisl’s men demonstrated that was no fluke by beating the Germans 5-0 in the Austrian capital in September of that year. But the result that really made Europe sit-up and take notice was a 2-1 victory against Italy in the final of the Central European International Cup, a prestigious tournament that was the forerunner of the European Championship. Austria went 14 games unbeaten between 1931 and 1932 and was among the favourites for the 1934 World Cup, which was to be held in Italy.
As the history books remind us, central Europe was a hotbed of unrest in the 1930s and with Austria’s neighbours about to come under the spell of Adolf Hitler, football came second to bouts of aggression, appeasement and real-politik. Over four days in February 1934, civil war between socialists and conservative-fascist forces took place in Austria. It started in Linz, but Vienna was affected and this may have had a negative impact. Certainly, the Austrian team that travelled to Italy seemed to have lost some of its verve. They laboured through two rounds, beating France 3-2 and Hungary 2-1, but then came up against hosts and eventual winners, Italy, who beat them 1-0 on a poor surface. The dream was over, at least until 1938.
By then, thanks to Anschluss, Austria had become part of Germany, so the Wunderteam broke up. Sindelar, well known for his left-wing views and close association with the Jewish community, refused to play for the unified German team, and went as far as to taunt Nazi officials when a special reunification game between Germany and Austria took place in Vienna. Sadly, Austria’s finest player, who had since bought a coffee house in the Favoriten district, had a grisly end. In 1939, he was found dead in his bed – along with his girlfriend – by a friend. Most people expected that he had been a victim of the Nazis, some blamed a faulty heating system and carbon monoxide poisoning. We shall never know, but the records will tell us that Sindelar and his team-mates lit up the city on the Danube in those halcyon days for Austrian football. But like Hungary in 1954 and Holland in 1974, they will forever be known as the champions that never were….
This article first appeared on Neil’s site, Game of the People, which looks at football in all corners of the world.