MATTHIAS SINDELAR - THE PAPER MAN
Born to a catholic family of Czech origin in 1903, Matthias Sindelar was just two years old when his family moved to Vienna. They settled in an area known as Favoriten in the city’s south.
It would be on these streets that a naturally slight and short but ruthlessly determined Matthias would begin to hone his skills. At 15 years old he was signed to play for local side Hertha Vienna, where he played for almost a decade before signing to the significantly larger Austria Vienna in 1924. It was to be the latter club with whom he would forever be most associated, staying for the rest of his career.
Sindelar would not have to wait long for success at his new club. His first season saw the side lift the Austrian cup, a year later they would complete the league and cup double. In total, Sindelar would win six Austrian cups in just eleven years as an Austria Vienna player. As successful as he was on the domestic stage, it would be with the national side that he would really make his name.
Things got off to an inauspicious start for young Matthias. After making his international debut in 1926 he was almost immediately ostracised by Austria’s legendary coach, Hugo Meisl, a strict disciplinarian and ruthless pragmatist. There was no room in his side for the free spirited, free thinking Sindelar.
Indeed It would be another four years before he would be brought back into the fold. The story goes that Meisl’s eventual reintroduction of Sindelar only came about after the manager was confronted by a number of Vienna’s leading football thinkers and writers while relaxing at Vienna’s hallowed Ring Cafe. After much heated debate with the men, Meisl ceaded and agreed to reinstate Sindelar. He would never look back.
Shortly after his return to the national team Austria were to play Scotland, then one of the strongest sides anywhere in Europe. The game ended 5-0 with Sindelar at the heart of everything as he pulled the strings to orchestrate undoubtedly the most impressive single game performance the Austrian national side had ever produced. The ‘wunderteam’ was born.
The win against Scotland was followed by a remarkable string of results including a 6-0 win against Germany, an 8-1 dismantling of Switzerland, an 8-2 thrashing of Hungary and a comfortable 4-0 victory over France. During this early 30s peak, Austria were arguably the best team anywhere in the world.
Everything was set up for Sindelar and the Austrians to sweep through the 1934 World Cup and claim victory, and they very nearly did. Victories against France and Hungary set up a semi-final with hosts Italy led by manager Pozzo and backed by Mussolini.
On another day it may have all been different. Torrid conditions had turned the pitch into a mud bath and Sindelar was targeted, kicked and shoved out of the contest, all while referee Ivan Eklind stood idly by. Italy would win the contest before dispatching Czechoslovakia in the final. Much to the delight of Mussolini and his ruling fascist party.
In March 1938 everything changed. The Vienna as Sindelar had always new it, one built around the coffee shops and intense philosophical debates, was dead.
A culture which had had such a beautiful symbiotic relationship with the footballer, the on-pitch embodiment of Vienna’s bohemian, free thinking, free spirited ethos, was wiped out overnight.
In March 1938 Hitler’s forces drove into Austria.
It was decided the Austrian national team that Sindelar had led so exceptionally in the preceding decade would cease to exist, its players were to be absorbed into a new German side
To celebrate the ‘Anschluss’ (annexation of Austria) Austria were to play one last game, a friendly against Germany on the 3rd April 1938, less than a month after the invasion.
As the match began Sindelar reportedly played fairly well, dancing between slower German defenders and linking with teammates nicely but, notably, none of his normally relatable shots were finding the back of the net. Instead Sindelar kept rolling the ball narrowly wide of the German goalposts. To some of his staunchest disciples this was a clear attempt at mockery by the slight Austrian. Cutting through the Germans with ease before having the control to place the ball just wide.
It is also unfathomable to think that the Nazis, obsessed with shows of strength as they were, would have appreciated a loss to the Austrians. Perhaps it was this that was lingering in the back of the great man’s mind.
Either way in the second half something changed for Sindelar, he played with a joy and a freedom that even those who had watched him play for the national team and with Austria Vienna for years noted as remarkable. He toyed with the Germans and after 70 minutes he once again found space in the German defence before scoring impudently tapping the ball into the German net after a blocked shot. Minutes later Austria had added a second, courtesy of Schasti Sesta free kick.
The Austrian crowd were jubilant and Sindelar, perhaps swept away in the moment performed a victory dance in front of the Nazi VIP box containing a number of high ranking officials.
It would be his last action as a footballer.
After the match he was forced to choose between either joining the new German-Austrian hybrid team of the Nazi‘s or retirement, Sindelar opened a cafe.
More precisely he bought a cafe, one previously owned by a Jewish man who was forced to give it up. Under the Nazi regime Sindelar would have been entitled to effectively seize the cafe at a cut rate fee but he did not. He payed the full price for it and immediately made it a policy that his establishment would be open to any, Jewish or none Jewish, his refusal to tow the Nazi party line landed him on a Gestapo watch list.
Six months later he would be dead.
At just thirty five Sindelar was discovered by a friend lying dead next to his girlfriend in his apartment. Officially his cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty heater. His persistent refusal to bow to the Nazis as a business owner as well as his defiant last act as a footballer meant rumours abounded immediately that Sindelar was just another good man murdered by a Nazi regime ruled by paranoia and reactionary fear.
As a player Sindelar advanced football. He had taken a game built from the notions of muscular Christianity in British public schools some 50 years prior and created an art form. A slight man who had brains in his feet, dancing away from defenders and manipulating the game at will with his movement. Quite possibly the greatest pre-war footballer to have played the game Sindelar should be remembered more as a footballer of impeccable ability and skill.
As a man his refusal to reap the benefits afforded to him purely for the fact he was not born Jewish, when so many around him, at least initially, were more than happy to do so, is telling.
The image of the slight man dancing for joy in front of the humiliated Nazi contingent is a glorious one.
Matthias Sindelar, the paper man, the Mozart of football and undoubtedly a profoundly decent human being.
Words by Andy Gallagher