Matthias Sindelar and the death of Austrian football

We're sure you are familiar with Stanley Matthews, Ferenc Puskas and Garrincha, but what about Matthias Sindelar.  Here's Greg Theoharis on a truly inspirational Austrian.

There’s always a clash of cultures in my household. Having a half-Austrian wife and being of Greek descent myself, often throws up half-jovial debates as to which country has given the world more in an artistic and philosophical sense. For every Greek philosopher, she counters with Freud. For every Mozart and Strauss, she gets a Homer or Sophocles in response. And for a Telly Savalas, she can always trump me with an Arnie. But its within the realm of football, that I’ve had the upper hand since Greece’s triumph at Euro 2004. That is until a recent visit to Vienna opened my eyes to a modestly lauded footballing history that makes the Austrian national side’s current stagnation, all the more saddening.

Jonathan Wilson, in his excellent analysis of the evolution of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, presents a fascinating overview of how Austrian football did more for advancing the cause of aesthetically pleasing passing football in the 1920s and 1930s than any other nation. Borne out of the early Scottish style of passing which differed radically from the ‘kick and rush’ of the English, the pioneering Austrian coach, Hugo Meisl developed a style of play which centred predominantly on intricate interplay between players and consequently left opponents non-plussed by the technical artistry on display.

The great German theatre practitioner, Bertolt Brecht, maintained that theatre should be more akin to a sporting event and through this, people would be encouraged to debate and discuss the issues thrown up by his plays. Everybody would become an ‘expert’ as he put it. Just as the pub has been a traditional platform for post-match discourse in Britain, in Austria it has always been the coffee house. Vienna’s social structure was and is centred on its thirst for caffeine, nicotine and discourse and it was in numerous cafés visited during my stay, that my Austrian ‘relatives’ made it abundantly clear that their countrymen are not as ambivalent towards the game as I might have foolishly suggested.

Matthias Sindelar is perhaps not a name that evokes the wistful nostalgia for black and white newsreels and mazy dribbles that the likes of Stanley Matthews, Ferenc Puskas and Garrincha might. Nevertheless, he remains an example to the noble aspirations for which footballers can strive towards and in these days of monied extravagance offers an alternative to the stereotype that all footballers care about is themselves.

Sindelar was an integral part of Meisl’s Wunderteam. He was to all intents and purposes what we would call a ‘playmaker’ in the modern day interpretation of the game. Blessed with a range of passing skills, he was capped 43 times by his country, scoring 27 goals, taking Austria to the semi-finals of the 1934 World Cup. The anecdotal stories have it that people would turn up not only to watch him play football but also to learn how it should be played.

“In a way he had brains in his legs,” the theatre critic Alfred Polgar wrote, “and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running. Sindelar's shot hit the back of the net like the perfect punch-line, the ending that made it possible to understand and appreciate the perfect composition of the story, the crowning of which it represented.” This was a player who was lauded not so much for his scoring but also for his capacity to add theatrical flourishes to his play.

However, what truly marked out the ‘Paper-Man’ from his contemporaries, was his unshakeable belief in the notions of right and wrong which ultimately brought about the end of his career and some have suggested, his death.

Once Austria had been annexed by Nazi Germany in the Anschluss of 1938, Sindelar refused to play for the forcibly merged German team citing old age as a reason for his retirement. However, he was coaxed into representing an Austrian XI in a show-match against Germany just before he bowed out of the footballing stage and his flagrantly non-conformist antics have become legendary in their re-telling in Austria. Having missed a score of chances, he finally deigned to score in the Austrians’ 2-0 win and after doing so, he took the opportunity to apparently taunt the Nazi dignitaries by dancing in front of their stand in celebration.

A year into his retirement, having bought his own café from a Jewish citizen, Sindelar was found dead in his apartment in bed with his girlfriend Camilla Castagnola, a former prostitute. Castagonola died in hospital the next day and it is said that the lovers’ death had been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning due to a blocked gas stove in their apartment. Sindelar was just thirty-five years old. The subject of both his and Castagnola’s deaths has been open to much conjecture over the years. There is a school of thought which suggests the couple were unwilling to live in an Austria under the yoke of Nazism but there have also been more sinister theories in circulation ranging from a revenge attack by Castagnola’s former pimp to the Nazi authorities seeking retribution for Sindelar’s openly hostile attitude towards the Reich.

What cannot be doubted is that Sindelar’s death brought about a period of national mourning with a reported fifteen thousand people attending his funeral. His legend lives on and he has been immortalized in the form of poetry, On the Death of a Footballer by Friedrich Torberg and in theatre, among other cultural media. If you visit Vienna, you will often find fresh flowers laid on Sindelar’s grave at the Zentralfriedhof. He is still regarded in the highest of esteem and was voted Austria’s greatest player years after his untimely death.

Sindelar has come to personify the passing of an age for Austrians, both as a footballing icon and as the death knell for Austria’s cultural influences upon the world as the spectre of war loomed large. As the current crop of Austrian footballers struggle to surpass their near-neighbours Germany for automatic qualification for Euro 2012, many doubt whether they will see his like again. Matthias Sindelar made football artistically acceptable and played it with intelligence and honour. His fierce moral beliefs could well serve as an example for today’s crop of players who are more concerned with fast cars and protracted contractual gamesmanship. But as in all things, what transpires is merely a sign of the times in which we live.

As for that ongoing debate between the wife and myself; after visiting Vienna, I can probably concede that when it comes down to footballing achievement, it’s probably a score draw.

If you would like to read more from Greg, please visit his excellent blog Dispatches from a football sofa.