The remarkable story of Matthias Sindelar

Jonathan Harding on one of the finest pre-war footballers and his amazing story.

Every manager is judged by his ability to create a successful team. This can result in an extraordinary story for the collective and yet it is the life of the individual that means more to us. The Austrian Wunderteam from the early 1930s, one of the most formidable sides of the era and arguably the bringers of flair football to Europe, had both the collective and the individual. From the plethora of options, it is ‘the Paper man’ whose story resonates the most.

Matthias Sindelar was a man forgotten before time gave him the chance to be remembered. He was not someone who had the choice of being in endless replays or on slow-motion montages, or even regurgitating the same post-match interviews. Mind you, had slow motion montages been available at the time, the chances are Sindelar may have been involved. After all, it was Sindelar who agreed to a rewarding suit advertising deal. Apart from being one of football’s early messiahs, he was also a clever and deep thinking man. In a world where individualistic footballing prowess reigns supreme, it is the story of a man so far from that time, that is the one worth telling.

Hailed by the Daily Mail as “one of the greatest players in the world” and having had footballs named after him, Matthias Sindelar should be a household name. Not many players have scored goals of the same quality as Sindelar did against England in Austria’s extremely admirable 4-3 defeat in the early 1930s. ‘The Wafer’ rounded as many opponents as dared approach him on his run from the halfway line to the six-yard box, whereupon arriving he promptly finished with a back-heel. Sadly Sindelar is hardly a name that reminds most of footballing brilliance. That is partly due to the era in which he was born, one lacking in an offensive amount of sporting coverage and partly due to his tragic death. For so many footballers, the story is so often of what has been achieved or how greater potential the player in question has. The ‘what might have been’ story is not an unpublished one (see Michael Owen’s career) but within the context of describing a life lost, it is thankfully a rare one. In life we are humbled by the individual’s ability to triumph in the face of adversity and the story of Matthias Sindelar is no exception.

The Wunderteam came to great fame in the early 1930s after a 5-0 victory over Scotland, a 6-0 victory over their greatest rivals Germany and a narrow 4-3 defeat to England. In all of their encounters the admiration lay on Austria’s style of play. It was hailed as the Scheiberl game and as Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger diligently points out in his book tor! the word in question cannot really be translated. ‘Ballet’ and ‘grace’ are suggested as the most likely substitutes in English and those are the perfect words and the elegant Matthias Sindelar was their conductor. This simply re-affirms the myth that people went to see Sindelar play not just to watch football but also to learn how the game was played. He was the combination of the effective and the aesthetically pleasing. He was an artist who painted with his feet. Theatre critic Alfred Polgar observed “in a way, he had brains in his legs.”

This is an expectation in the more modern game, helped of course by the increased obsession with technique and tactics, but for his era it was something remarkable. There is no denying that watching Lionel Messi today is a joy and an aesthetic pleasure for all those in love with the sport. Yet, can that really be compared with the romantic story of the youth of the 1930s who saved up, jumped fences, and stood on shoulders to watch the worlds greatest during the sports infancy? Those who have the benefit of a mouse-click should feel both fortunate and unlucky because for all of those replays at your disposal, nothing can replicate seeing a master at work from few meters away.

The Wunderteam’s performances dipped after the end of 1932 aided by the arrival of the Anschluss. For Sindelar and many of his teammates this was an extremely uncomfortable situation. The footballing issue pales in comparison to the political and religious impacts but they are not totally irrelevant, particularly in the context of Sindelar’s story. On the football field, Austria didn’t want to unite with Germany because there was no compatibility. One of Sindelar’s teammates was even quoted as saying “it’s their strength through kicking” that made the two teams infusible, at least with any successful outcome.

It is worth mentioning though, that this lack of enthusiasm for a joint team was a shared one. Germany were finally on the verge of creating a team that could bring them the success they had so long craved (sound familiar?), so it was equally frustrating for them to be ‘lumped’ with a side fancy of foot. The man in charge of trying to resolve this issue was Josef Herberger. According to him, Sindelar showed a real concern for the situation and repeatedly refused the offer to play, stating his fear of it all. These worries did not really match his clear anti-Nazi stance and although not being Jewish himself, he was labelled as ‘a friend of Jews’ in his Nazi file. His stance was not something he ever made an attempt to hide, but the impacts of doing so began to dawn on him.

Sindelar went to the 1934 World Cup, but had to watch on as his team fell to Germany in the third-placed play-off. His final international appearance came on the 3rd April 1938, in a match Sindelar would suitably make his own. In a friendly against Germany, unnecessarily dubbed by the Nazis as ‘The Alliance Game’, Sindelar led the line for Austria. The rise in Austrian nationalism was reported to be increasing and some argued the game did a great deal to add to it. Hesse-Lichtenberger notes that the number of chances spurned by Austria in the first half led to rumours that Austria were under orders to lose the game. The somewhat less likely, but more fitting rumour, is that Sindelar simply continued to miss on purpose, toying with a side that were inferior. It might not have been the greatest display of sportsmanship but all things considered and as great myths go, it surely would have brought a wry smile to the face of most onlookers.

Sindelar did eventually get his goal in a 2-0 victory for Austria and he celebrated it emphatically. The wisp of a man celebrated with great venom in front of 60,000 fans and more specifically in front of a whole host of swastikas. Some might call it foolish and naïve, some may even call it brave. For him, I can only imagine that in that moment, he truly felt what he believed. In that moment, the wisp became a hurricane.

In 43 appearances for his country, he scored 27 goals. His specific statistics for his club side, FK Austria Vienna, have all but been lost. What is known though, is that he helped them, if not led them, to one league title, five domestic cup titles as well as two Mitropa Cups (one of the first internationally competitive club competitions). If only there had been a tally on his assists, his key passes and his touches. They might have even made the likes of Xavi, Iniesta or Messi look pale.

Perhaps not as astounding as first considered, the Austrian FA and the DFB (German FA) did not record ‘The Alliance Game’ as an international. It is such decisions that have made the truth far from easy to discover, if at all possible. We end up being left with more myth and rumour than fact and evidence. This happens to all history over time but in the case of the Wunderteam and Sindelar, it leaves us all the more bemused. In what became Sindelar’s final chapter, the ambiguity of fact reaches its peak, as the fairytale turned into a heartbreaking reality.

On January 23rd 1939, Matthias visited his Italian girlfriend Camilla Castagnola to enjoy an evening of red wine and lovemaking. When the sun rose the following morning, the 35-year-old Sindelar was found dead on his bed, with the dying Castagnola near by. There had been a defect in the chimney block of the flat and their neighbours had complained but nothing had been done. The lovers were both gassed during their sleep. Since then, there have been an abundant number of sources suggesting answers for a truth that has been lost. For most, the case of Sindelar is a tragic accident that resulted in the loss of Austria’s greatest footballer. Reports suggest between 15,000 and 20,000 came to his funeral, a truly incredible number.

Both Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger and Jonathan Wilson dismiss the radical claims of murder due to the glaring lack of concrete evidence. After all, Sindelar was not Jewish, despite knowing and befriending Jews, and neither was Castagnola. Yet the lack of evidence, combined with the facts, is what has caused the longevity of the Sindelar discussion. Sindelar was a man both wary of and openly against the Nazi regime. Castagnola is thought to have been a former prostitute and there are suggestions that her pimp went to the Nazi officials about Sindelar out of frustration. Six months after their deaths, when the Nazi’s asked the file to be closed and archived, the public prosecutor had failed to reach a verdict. The poet Friedrich Torberg suggests Sindelar chose to take his own life because he felt “lost” and had been “abruptly confronted by an opponent with foreign and devastating superiority, for whom there was no right and no rules.”

All of these rumours, myths and possibilities have prolonged the debate over Austria’s greatest player and have resulted in a never-ending search for an unknown answer. For me, Torberg’s words strike that deeper cord. They represented a nation in mourning, both saddened and confused. He couldn’t believe that a player who had “flicked his blonde hair to one side, let his godly ability shine whilst charging across the field of play, sometimes all the way into goal”, had left this world. Within that deeper cord of understanding, the search for truth remains tricky. Sindelar had already voiced his concerns to Herberger and had openly stated he would never play for Germany, but the manner of his death makes suicide appear unlikely. It does seem odd that their neighbours never told either of them about the chimney defect but maybe the pair simply didn’t know. Maybe that was their perfect ending in a world they saw (correctly) as only getting more dangerous.

Sindelar was oppressed for his beliefs, despite not being Jewish himself, and died prematurely. Over 70 years later and players are still oppressed for their religious beliefs, their sexuality and their skin colour. Sindelar himself would be ashamed and probably would have said so. For all of the positive developments in football, racism on and off the field remains an issue, as does the acceptance of homosexuality. Even with an improved justice system in place, things still manage to be ruled by power and wealth rather than by evidence and right. Matthias Sindelar was one of the greatest footballers that most of the world never saw. His death will always be ambiguous and yet the modern game, in an era not suppressed by a power hungry dictatorship, one supposedly ‘open to all’ and one with a surplus amount of coverage and opportunity, can only stumble upon the same ambiguity. Sindelar the footballer shouldn’t be forgotten but neither should his story. Not for its ambiguous end but for how valid it is today.

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Posted by Jonathan Harding

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