The Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s was one of the finest international sides never to have won the men’s FIFA World Cup. At its heart was a slightly-built but outrageously talented forward named Matthias Sindelar.
Sindelar grew up in poverty on the outskirts of Vienna. He joined the youth team of Hertha Vienna and soon impressed with his technical skill and dribbling ability. In 1924 he signed for the national champions and cup holders Austria Vienna with whom he won five Austrian cups, one league title and two prestigious Mitropa Cups played between central European club sides.
He scored on his debut for Austria in 1926 against Czechoslovakia and scored three more goals in his next two matches against Switzerland and Sweden. But he soon fell out with the disciplinarian coach Hugo Meisl although he was reinstalled when Meisl bowed to pressure from sports journalists.
Sindelar was back in the team for the 5-0 demolition of Scotland – then considered one of the best teams in Europe – and 6-0 and 5-0 victories against rivals Germany in 1931. These matches were part of an extraordinary series of eighteen unbeaten games that cemented the Wunderteam legend.
Sindelar represented Austria at the 1934 FIFA World Cup.
The run came to an end when England defeated Austria 4-3 at Stamford Bridge in December 1932 but even the London press agreed that the best side had lost. The Daily Mail considered the Austrian forward line ‘players of genius’ and ranked Sindelar and his teammates among ‘the greatest players in the world’.
Sindelar epitomised an approach to football that contrasted with the physicality of teams like England and Italy. He was nicknamed ‘Der Papieriene’ (man of paper), on account of his slight physique and ability to slip through the tightest of defences. It was football based less on physical contact and more on intelligence, guile and precision.
None of this proved enough to win Austria the World Cup. In the 1934 semi-final in Milan, Sindelar was smothered by a merciless Italian defence and Austria lost 1-0. By 1938, his international career was over. He scored in one final match after the Nazi annexation of Austria (the Anschluss) but refused to represent a German team incorporating Austria.
In January 1939, Sindelar and his girlfriend were found dead in his apartment. The official verdict was carbon monoxide poisoning but rumours persisted for many years that he either committed suicide or was killed by the Gestapo for his support of Jews and rejection of the Anschluss.
For more information about sports history at DMU, visit www.dmu.ac.uk/sportshistory.
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