‘He was endowed with such an unbelievable wealth of variations and ideas that one could never really be sure which manner of play was to be expected. He had no system, to say nothing of a set pattern. He just had…. genius.’ Friedrich Torberg (Wilson, 60:2008)
Matthias Sindelar came from a family of Moravian immigrants. The family made their new home in Favouriten, a poor suburb of Vienna. Growing up in Austria between the wars Sindelar was exposed to a culture of football unlike any other in the world at that time. The Viennese coffee-houses became places of discussion and debate over football and politics. Each team had their own coffee house, where players and fans would gather to endlessly talk over ideas about football. This analysis of football produced players not only concerned with the physical side of the game but also the intellectual side.
‘For the importance of tactics to be fully realised, the game had to be taken up by a social class that instinctively theorised and deconstructed, that was as comfortable with planning in the abstract as with reacting on the field and, crucially, that suffered none of the distrust of intellectualism that was to be found in Britain.’ (Wilson, 59:2008)
Sindelar typified this, he was a centre-forward for Austria Vienna, a club that was associated with the Jewish bourgeoisie. Despite being of a slight build he was the star of the team. He was nicknamed the ‘Papierane’ , the Paper-man, due to his small frame and playing style. Observers said he seemed to float like a piece of paper.
He also became a key member of the Austrian national side, that became known as the ‘Wunderteam’. This team went onto become a European powerhouse, the strongest side that Austria has ever produced, inflicting defeats on the traditional powers of England and Scotland, and regional rivals Germany.
By 1936 the Austrian side was on the wane, having been overtaken by the tactics and better physical condition of the Italian national side (Wilson, 66:2008). In 1938 the writing was on the wall for the Wunderteam. The expansionist plans of Hitler’s National Socialist party in Germany meant uniting the Germanic peoples of Europe. The ‘Anschluss’, or annexation of Austria happened in March of 1938 to widespread Austrian acclaim. Some Austrians were less than happy about this development though, Sindelar among them. For all the rumours about him and his life most observers agree that he did not like the Nazis and was unhappy about the conversion of Austria into ‘Ostmark’, the new name for the newest region of Germany.
His opinion of the direction his country was being led was no doubt affected by the changed circumstances for Jews in Austria. Many of Sindelar’s friends and teammates were forced to leave the club, Vienna and Austria, leaving behind their houses, jobs and possessions. Sindelar is reported to have told the outgoing, Jewish, chairman of Austria Vienna that, ‘The new club president has forbidden us to talk to you, but I will always speak to you, Herr Doktor.’ (Stummer, 2008)
There were consequences for Austria’s national team as well. As Austria and Germany were now one country, they were to have one national football team. Meaning some of the best players in Europe would now be playing for Nazi Germany, instead of Austria. There was to be one final ‘Alliance game’ between the two teams though, intended to be a ‘propagandistic display of brotherhood and unity’ (Hesse-Lichtenberger, 83:2003). There are rumours that the Nazi leadership had decreed that this game should finish as a draw, and that Sindelar spent the first half deliberately, and conspicuously, ‘missing’ easy chances to score. The implication being that Sindelar was communicating to the crowd that this game had been rigged, while at the same time demonstrating the superiority of the Austrians.
When the second half began Sindelar could hold back no more and finally put the ball in the net to make it 1-0. To celebrate his goal he danced in front of the watching Nazi dignitaries as the rest of the increasingly partisan crowd began a chant of “Österreich, Österreich”. Karl Sesta later made the score 2-0 and the Austrians won their final game as Austrians until the end of the war.
In the weeks and months following the game the manager of the new ‘Pan-Germanic’ team, Sepp Herberger, was tasked with integrating the two sides. Naturally he wanted Sindelar to be a part of that. Time and again he asked him to play for the new team, each time Sindelar refused, claiming he was too old or unfit. Herberger, ‘As I tried again and again to change his mind, I gained the idea that he had some other reasons to decline. I almost had the impression it was down to feelings of uneasiness and rejection to do with the political developments that weighed on his mind and caused his refusal.’ (quoted in Hesse-Lichtenberger, 83:2003)
Sindelar instead retired from football. He bought a cafe repossessed from a Jewish owner under Nazi laws preventing Jewish ownership of businesses. During the final year of his life Sindelar maintained his friendships with Jewish friends, and continued to rebuff Herberger. These actions combined to earn him a Gestapo report noting that he was a ‘Social Democrat, pro-Jewish and not sympathetic to the party’ (Stummer, 2008).
It was in this climate of suspicion and resentment that have contributed to the rumours about Sindelar’s death. His body was found in the apartment of a recent girlfriend, just months after the Alliance game. The officially recorded manner of death was carbon monoxide poisoning brought on by a blocked chimney, something common to the neighbourhood the apartment was in.
Many believe he was a victim of Gestapo assassination, or even that his death was because of a suicide pact with his girlfriend of 10 days. However, there is no proof of any of this (Hesse-Lichtenberger, v2003a). As Simon Kuper says though, however he may have died, his death represents a loss of Vienna’s freedom, culture and leadership in football.
For his refusal to acquiesce to the Nazis’ demands, and his undoubted ability as a player, Matthias Sindelar gets a place as centre-forward in the Political Footballers XI.
Go here to read the other articles in this series: Political Footballers XI
Hesse-Lichtenberger, Ulrich (2003a) ‘The “Paper-man” mystery’ on ESPN Soccernet. http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=271800&root=europe&cc=5901
Hesse-Lichtenberger, Ulrich (2003) ‘Tor: The Story of German Football’ WSC Books, UK.
Kuper, Simon (2007) ‘Political Football: Matthias Sindelar’ on Channel4.com. http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/sports/political+football+matthias+sindelar/1056747.html
Stummer, Robin (2008) ‘The striker who snubbed Hitler’ in The New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/sport/2008/06/austria-sindelar-soccer-nazi
Wilson, Jonathan (2008) ‘Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics. Orion, UK.