Imagine a bona fide footballing genius. A man who led a legendary side which effortlessly decimated almost all rivals. A man who was a national treasure in his day, enjoying fame and riches beyond his contemporaries, and whose death – at a shockingly young age – also happens to be the subject of dark conspiracy theories.
You’d think such a footballer would be a household name, even among people who couldn’t explain the offside rule. But Matthias Sindelar has been inexplicably left behind by the march of time, despite being a hero both on the pitch and off it. So just who was the man dubbed by those in the know “the pre-war Pelé”?
The wonder boy of Vienna
Matthias Sindelar wasn’t merely a gifted player. He was quite literally a game-changer. His cerebral, complex style of play, less direct and forceful than many of his contemporaries, altered the way people saw football. It’s for this reason that he was equally beloved by both blue collar fans and the chin-stroking, café-dwelling intellectuals of Europe. Many knew him as the “Paper Man” because of his misleadingly slight and flimsy build, while some went so far as to call him the Mozart of football.
One onlooker, dazzled by Sindelar’s dribbling skills, said he played football the way “a grandmaster played chess”. Journalists swooned and wrote gushing odes, with one describing how “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.”
Sindelar made his name with FK Austria Vienna, a team he would help win the Austrian Cup numerous times in the 1920s and 30s. But it’s his role in the Austrian national team that really sealed his place as the most significant player of his era. Interestingly, though, the legendary period associated with Sindelar didn’t commence until several years after he joined the team.
He made his debut for Austria in 1926, scoring in his first match. But it wasn’t until 1931, and a seminal game against Scotland – then a major force in European football – that the world sat up and noticed. They demolished Scotland 5-0, inaugurating an era of jaw-dropping dominance. Over the next few years, the “wunderteam” brought forth scorelines which even a Hollywood screenwriter would hesitate to invent. They beat Germany 6-0. Switzerland were crushed 8-1. Hungary were thrashed 8-2. France fell 4-0. During their early 30s peak, Austria were arguably the best team on the planet, and Sindelar was their star.
One of their most epic confrontations came in December 1932, when they faced the might of England, at Stamford Bridge. This was a major event back home in Austria, with crowds gathering in Vienna to hear blow-by-blow commentary blasted out on loudspeakers on the streets. It turned out to be a rare defeat for the wunderteam, with England triumphing 4-3. And yet, it’s a testament to the beauty of the Austrians’ game that even British journalists seemed to take their side. Sindelar was singled-out for praise, with newspapers calling him a “genius” and one of the best players in the world. The referee later recalled Sindelar’s goal in that game as “a masterpiece”, describing how he effortlessly dribbled around all comers with Maradona-like bravado, to score a goal which “no-one else, no-one before him and no-one after him, could possibly have scored against opponents as good as the English.”
The 1934 World Cup should have been the pinnacle of the wunderteam’s wonder period. With Sindelar on top form, they were widely touted to go all the way. They certainly started well, beating rivals France and Hungary to get to a semi-final clash against host nation Italy. The conditions that day were terrible, with heavy rain churning the pitch into a muddy mess ill-suited to Austria’s careful, structured, passing style. Sindelar himself was targeted by the opposition, sustaining injuries and effectively being rendered useless for the match, which Austria eventually lost. Italy would go onto win the World Cup, delighting Mussolini, who used the World Cup to showcase Fascist might just as Hitler would do with the 1936 Olympics.
Sindelar vs the Nazis
Despite the waning fortunes of the once-unstoppable wunderteam, Sindelar himself enjoyed a level of celebrity and financial success we might associate with today’s top footballers. But things would change forever in March 1938, when Hitler’s forces poured into Austria. This was the “Anschluss”, which saw the nation annexed by Nazi Germany. Many Austrians welcomed the Nazis, seeing this as a historic moment of triumphant unity. But their arrival would change everything – not just for the carefree, bohemian culture of Vienna, but for football as well.
It was decided that the Austrian national team would cease to exist, its players absorbed into a new German side. But before that, a final match would be permitted. To celebrate the Anschluss, Austria would play a friendly against Germany. The match took place on 3 April 1938, and – thanks to Sindelar – it remains one of the strangest and most poignant games of football ever played.
There is some disagreement about Sindelar’s behaviour on the pitch that day. According to reports, he missed a number of easy chances in the first half – so much so, that many believe he was deliberately condescending to the Germans. Toying with them and mocking them with his footwork, using the beautiful game to register his ridicule towards a regime he despised. A more cynical view is that Sindelar just wasn’t on top form. Either way, the game looked set to be a draw, which is presumably what the new Nazi overlords of Austria wanted.
Then, perhaps unable to resist the urge any longer, perhaps thinking “diplomacy be damned”, Sindelar struck. Suddenly, unthinkably, it was 1-0 to Austria. Not long after, a teammate scored a second goal. The crowd went crazy, in what is often regarded as the last burst of Austrian patriotism before the Nazi occupation snuffed out all dissent. Sindelar even did an impertinent victory dance right in front of a VIP box containing various Nazi officials.
This would prove to be the last hurrah of a European icon. Pressured to join the new German-Austrian team, Sindelar opted to retire instead, and began an unlikely new career as a café owner. He bought an establishment from a Jewish owner who’d been forced to give up his business, choosing to pay the full price rather than the cut-rate which, as a non-Jew, he would have been entitled to. He spent his days catering to locals, Jews and non-Jews alike, and his clear distaste for the Nazi government was noted by the Gestapo. His new existence wasn’t to last.
On 23 January 1939, a friend discovered Matthias Sindelar’s dead body in his apartment, lying alongside his unconscious girlfriend who would also die soon after. The official explanation was that they’d succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty heater. Naturally, given Sindelar’s status as a subtle rebel in the new regime, many believe he was actually murdered by the Nazis.
Accident or death by Gestapo? The truth can be debated, but one thing that is inarguable is Sindelar’s significance as a footballer. His status was such that he received a vast state funeral, with tens of thousands of people lining the streets to bid farewell to a sporting giant who died at just 35. Matthias more than deserves his place in the pantheon, as a beautiful player of the beautiful game, and the man who refused to capitulate to Hitler.
HISTORY’s Forgotten People shines a light on those men and women who’ve made an impact on this world, for both good and bad, but whose stories now sit in the shadows of history. Some achieved great things which time forgot, whilst others came close to making their mark on this world but ultimately came up short. All of these people though have a reason to be remembered.