Fisch auf dem Trockenen: An American’s Journey Through the Austrian Bundesliga, Part VIII

“A new dawn is breaking. One in which the sport will face something completely different than that of the old regime.”

– Official announcement of the dissolution of the Austrian Bundesliga in Fußball-Sonnatag. June 5, 1938.

Part VIII: Man and Myth

Note: This is Part VIII of an ongoing series. If this is your first time reading, you may want to begin with Part I: Introductions. 

Hallo again! Today we’ll be continuing my look at Matthias Sindelar, picking up where I left off last week. If you haven’t read that, you may want to give it a look first. Like last week, I’ll also pick up with a discussion of what’s going on around the league over the last week and what to expect this weekend. We had a big Europa League Group Draw just this morning, so don’t miss it! If you don’t feel like reading the narrative on Sindelar (why not?) you can simply scroll down to the bottom for my recap and picks for this weekend. Enjoy!

 


 

In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria into his newly-consolidated German Reich, making Austria the “’Nazis’ First Victim.” Or at least that’s how the story went. In reality, Nazi sympathy had been making inroads in Austria for years. Following a short civil war, in which several hundred were killed and thousands wounded, the Austrian government under Engelbert Dollfuss ushered in a new period of “Austrofascism.” Though Austrofascism was intended from the outset to separate itself from the German brand of Nazism, it nonetheless provided an area for fascist ideology and (ultimately) support for the Nazis to flourish.

Dollfuss was eventually assassinated by Nazis, and though his successor, Kurt Schuschnigg, continued to try to preserve an independent Austria, on the morning of March 12, 1938, tanks rolled across the German border with little to no resistance. The Austrian Army had, in fact, been ordered not to resist. And thus, the Nazis were welcomed into Austria with open arms, waving flags, and cheering crowds – a view that surprised even Hitler.

Through all of this, the Austrian national soccer team remained a point of interest. The Austrian Wunderteam, led once again by the Paper Man, Matthias Sindelar, had once again qualified for the World Cup – this one to be held in 1938. But then they withdrew. Because of the Anschluß, the somewhat euphemistic name for the annexation, the German government declared that the Austrian team was now a part of the German team. And since Germany had also qualified, the Austrian players – or at least the non-Jewish Austrian players – would play for them in the World Cup. But first, to commemorate this momentous occasion, one final match was scheduled for the Austrian national team – between them and their new overlords.

The match occurred on April 3, 1938, less than a month after the invasion. It was scheduled to be in the Prater Stadium, not far from where the first soccer match in Austria had been played in 1894. It started out rather boring. Sindelar seemed off his game… or perhaps he had been directed to miss. He took shot after shot that seemed to go wide, high, wide again. These shots should have been easy, but they were conspicuously not making it into the back of the net.

But then, it seemed that Sindelar had enough. The Paper Man hit a rebound into the back of the net, seemingly defying an order that had been given before the match to preserve a draw. And then, following suit, his teammate hit in a penalty kick. They were up 2-0 at the end of the match. Sindelar celebrated (perhaps a bit too loudly) in front of the Nazi dignitaries’ box as the final whistle was blown. Then, adding insult to injury, Sindelar refused to give the Nazi salute at the end of the match. Sindelar never played again.

After this final match, Sindelar announced his retirement from soccer at the ripe age of 35. He claimed he was too old, but everyone knew the truth – he refused to play for the Nazis.

After his retirement, Sindelar found himself in the middle of a purge of Austria’s Jewish population. Though he was Catholic himself, he was friends with many Jews in Favoriten. He notably bought a café in his home district from a Jewish man for a fair price, at a time when fair prices were hard to come by for Jews. What happened next, though, is a bit of a historical controversy.

On January 23, 1939, nine months after his final game, Sindelar and his girlfriend were found dead in their flat. The reason was carbon monoxide poisoning linked to a faulty chimney flue. Over the years, many have suggested that it was actually suicide or, more commonly, that it was the Nazis who secretly assassinated Sindelar. After all, he had helped the Jews, he had refused to play ball with the Fatherland, and he had even disrespected the Nazis. Another rumor spread that he and his girlfriend were, themselves, crypto-Jews (though this last one is even more absurd than the others).

As a historian who has examined these kinds of things closely, I can’t definitively say that the Nazis killed Sindelar. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say that this didn’t really match their style. The Nazis had no problem throwing high-profile people into a concentration camp. And swift retribution was more the norm for slights. This was a means of preventing them in the future. Quietly waiting nine months to discretely get rid of someone was simply not their style. If it were the Nazis, I suspect it would have been quite obvious. Of course, this, like others, is just speculation. We may never know the truth of the matter. But for now, I think it’s a bit out of their normal MO for the Nazis.

What is more important than the conspiracy theories surrounding Sindelar’s death themselves is, to me, how this story of Sindelar – that of the noble resister, the Paper Man who scored when he wasn’t supposed to, the victim of the Nazis – seems to persist today. It follows what Tony Judt described in his monograph Postwar, when he said that in Austria “there was a strong disposition to put the past away and start afresh, to follow Isocrates’ recommendation to the Athenians at the close of the Peloponnesian Wars: ‘Let us govern collectively as though nothing bad had taken place.’”

It’s easier to remember the ones who resisted and then make them emblematic of the whole, rather than coming to terms with the fact that even though Sindelar resisted, the other members of the team (at least those who were not ousted for being Jewish) did not. Sure, there are some who claim that the Germans lost in the 1938 World Cup because of the intentionally lackluster performance of its Austrian members, but this too rests on a certain amount of faith in the myth.

I believe I’ve said before in this series that sport and history are intertwined in many ways. When I say that, I don’t just mean that sports happen at the same time as historical events, or even simply that history shapes the sport itself. But sport is, itself, a form of myth that works within History to create and maintain the narratives by which we structure our lives. Sindelar resisted. Austria was the Nazis’ first victim. These are the things that history remembers, because it’s what history wants to remember. The “collective amnesia” that Judt describes is, in some cases, necessary to carry on. But it’s also an excuse to avoid coming to a reckoning with your own past. And while we can and should celebrate the glorious past of Austrian soccer in Matthias Sindelar, the Paper Man, we must also remember the shortcomings of Austrian soccer. These, just as much as the triumphs, make up its history – and this should not be forgotten.

 


 

Thanks for reading that post! I actually thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing it. It’s always interesting to me when my passions intersect, and this whole project seems to be one giant intersection.

Before we get to the Bundesliga itself, let’s look at what happened internationally.

This last week Salzburg, unfortunately, became the last Austrian team to get knocked out of the Champions League. They ended up going out on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate against Red Star Belgrade. But that just means they join the hunt in the Europa League!

In the Europa League, Rapid Wien continued to advance on a 4-3 aggregate against FCSB from Romania. They’re looking good, but they’re going to need to dig deeper in order to get past the group stage.

Speaking of which, we had the group draw yesterday morning, so we now know who Rapid and Salzburg will be facing, and they should be some very interesting matches!

Group B:

Red Bull Salzburg

Celtic

Red Bull Leipzig

Rosenborg

Group G:

Villareal

Rapid Wien

Spartak

Moscow Rangers

As you see, this could be a fun couple of groups. We’ll have the Red Bull Derby with Salzburg against Leipzig. Rapid vs. Villareal should be a lot of fun to watch as well! But we’ll dig deeper into those soon.

Back in the Bundesliga itself, we saw some good matches and, to be honest, some boring matches. On Saturday, Red Bull Salzburg won over Altach (though Altach did better than I expected), and both St. Pölten vs. Austria Wien and Wolfsberger vs. Sturm Graz ended in draws. On Sunday, LASK beat Hartberg and Rapid Wien beat Wacker, while Admira continued its slump, drawing to a lackluster Mattersburg team. As I said before, if Admira doesn’t step it up, they could see themselves facing the bottom of the table for the first time in a long time this season.

Salzburg is beginning to separate itself from the rest of the table, and it seems the two halves of the league are beginning to shape up as well. Over the next few weeks we will really see if the mid-table can switch up or if they are already destined to their fate. This weekend’s games could really make that line more stark… or it could further muddy it up. We’ll see. Sunday’s games are more interesting in my opinion, with both Sturm Graz vs. Rapid and LASK vs. Wolfsberger promising to be good matches, but they should all be fun. The schedule for this week and my picks are below (game I will be watching marked with an *):

Saturday

Austria Wien vs. Mattersburg

Wacker Innsbruck vs. Hartberg

*Altach vs. St. Pölten

Sunday

*Sturm Graz vs. Rapid Wien

Red Bull Salzburg vs. Admira

LASK vs. Wolfsberger

Anyway, that’s it! I’m about a week out from the big move to Vienna, so next week may be a bit more sparse as I get ready for that. But until then, Auf Wiedersehen!

Update: You can continue this series with Part IX: Calm Before the Sturm.

 

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