“He would play football as a grandmaster plays chess; with a broad mental conception, calculating moves and countermoves in advance, always choosing the most promising of all possibilities. In a way he had brains in his legs, and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running.”
– Obituary for Matthias Sindelar, by Alfred Polgar
Part VII: The Rise of the Paper Man
Note: This is Part VII of an ongoing series. If this is your first time reading, you may want to begin with Part I: Introductions.
Hallo everyone! Today is the first half of my look at the legendary Austrian soccer player, Matthias Sindelar. While I wanted this to be one post, it just became too big. If you’re just here for the recap of the league and the preview of this week’s games, you can scroll on to the end. But I hope you do read this and the next part, as I think it’s an interesting story that should be read and understood to truly understand the history of Austrian soccer and Austria itself. So, here it goes!
When I first mentioned my idea to do a series following the Austrian Bundesliga and examining the relatively unknown history of Austrian Fußball to my friend (and fellow contributor to this blog), John Illg, his response was simply “Sindelar! Sindelar!”
I will admit, I didn’t know much about Sindelar at the time. I had seen the name before, I knew he was a part of the 1934 “Wunderteam,” but that was about it. As I dug deeper, though, I began to understand who he was and why the memory of Sindelar has persisted. The humble roots, the almost arrogant kindness, and the untimely death (complete with conspiracy theories) all combine to create a vision that was more myth than man. But there is a darker side, too. One that is rooted in the postwar reconstruction of memory in Austria, and a myth of a different kind – the myth of Austria as the Nazis first victim. But more on that in a bit…
Matthias Sindelar was born on February 10, 1903 in Koslau, Bohemia. At that time, Koslau was a part of the Habsburg Monarchy, but today it’s known as Kozlov, in the Czech Republic.* His father was a poor bricklayer and his mother was a housewife. However his family moved from Koslau when he was two years old, settling in the tenth district of Vienna, Favoriten.
Today, Favoriten is known as a center of Vienna’s Muslim population, but at the time, it was a burgeoning industrial and trade district. The rail lines ran through Favoriten, so that meant freight did as well. Like many Habsburg subjects, Sindelar’s family hoped that they could find a new life in the Imperial capital. Sindelar’s father could use his talents to help build this new district and, perhaps, provide for his family.
However, like many in Europe, disaster soon struck. The war goes by many names – the Great War, the War to End all Wars, World War I, die Ersten Weltkrieg – but Sindelar would know it simply as the war that took his father. In 1917, Sindelar’s mother would be forced to find work. Sindelar, too, would find work, apprenticing for a locksmith. But he had also found another passion. Soccer.
Sindelar began his soccer career for the youth team ASV Hertha. It was there that he began to develop a style of no-contact in order to make up for his slight build. It was for this reason that he got his nickname, “Der Papierene,” or “The Paper Man.”
Sindelar’s career continued despite the collapse of ASV Hertha and a near devastating knee injury. This injury is actually credited as forcing him to perfect his nascent no-contact style, as he was afraid that too much contact would only exacerbate the injury.
After Hertha, Sindelar ended up playing for the Wiener Amateur-Sportverein (WAS), also known as the Amateure. In 1926, this team would eventually come to be known by the same name we know it today – FK Austria Wien. It was also in this year that Sindelar would join the world stage, playing for Austria’s national team.
Sindelar took the world by storm, scoring multiple goals in Austria’s international matches. Eventually, this Austrian team became known as the “Wunderteam,” because of their domination of the game through quick passes and control of the ball – the style personified by Sindelar.
The Wunderteam’s success came to a climax at the 1934 World Cup in Italy. The team fought through the bracket, defeating France and Hungary, only to lose in a controversial match to the host country. This was, of course, the period of the rise of fascism. Though (as far as I can tell) it has never been proven, rumors have long swirled that Mussolini himself hand-picked either friendly or intimidated referees who would call the match in favor of the Italians. The idea was that this was not just a soccer tournament, but a referendum on fascism itself. Thus, Italy had to win. But this would be far from the Austrians’ last run-in with Fascism.
Next week, we’ll continue looking at Sindelar and the fate of Austrian soccer during World War II. But for now, I wanted to go over some of the happenings in the league!
In the Champions League, Red Bull Salzburg’s match ended in a 0-0 draw to Red Star Belgrade. I managed to watch this match, and I have to say, it was eerie. The Red Star supporters had been banned from the match for “racist chants.” This was after they had almost been banned last season for (no joke) supporting the war criminal Ratko Mladic. Needless to say, the team has gone down quite a bit in my estimation. The next match will be played in Austria on the 29th, and thankfully will have a much more interesting crowd.
In the Europa League, Rapid Wien won their first match against FCSB 3-1. This puts them in a very good position to advance to the group stage in their next match, which will be played on the 30th.
In the League itself, the matches went about as expected. St. Pölten beat Wacker 2-0, despite putting a curse on them by picking them to win. Wolfsberger beat Mattersburg by a crushing 6-0. Wolfsberger is looking hot. You definitely should not sleep on them. Red Bull Salzburg, predictably, beat Hartberg 2-0. On Sunday, Altach and Sturm Graz drew 1-1, and LASK defeated Rapid Wien 2-1 (my only real miss last week, since I don’t count predicted draws). The last game to talk about was Austria Wien’s stomping of Admira, 4-0. Admira did not look good. They really need to step it up or they will risk being in the talk for relegation. Admira finished 5th last year, 6th the year before that, and 4th before that. So, being in the bottom half of the table (much less third worst) is not exactly normal for Admira. So we’ll see how they respond in the weeks to come.
Next week there are some more interesting matches. The schedule and my predictions (in bold) are below. I’ve marked the match to watch for each day with an asterisk (*).
Altach vs. Red Bull Salzburg
*St. Pölten vs. FK Austria Wien
Wolfsberger vs. Sturm Graz
Hartberg vs. LASK
Admira vs. Mattersburg
*Rapid Wien vs. FC Wacker
Anyway, I think we could see some interesting results here, with the table beginning to really shake out. Make sure to stay tuned next week for the next part of my look at Matthias Sindelar. But until then, Auf Wiedersehen!
Update: You can continue this series with Part VIII: Man and Myth.
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