World Cup moments: Austria’s forgotten Wunderteam

A revolutionary side reached the 1934 semis but were beaten by Italian brawn in Milan

On the morning of January 23rd 1939 Gustav Hartmann burst through the door of a Vienna apartment in search of an old friend. He found him, lying naked alongside his unconscious lover. Matthias Sindelar, Der Papierene, the greatest footballer in Austrian history, shining star of the Wunderteam, the forward fulcrum around whom a ground-breaking new style of play wowed Europe in the early 1930s, was dead. He was 36.

The most prosaic explanation is the most likely – carbon monoxide poisoning due to a blocked chimney flue was the cause of death recorded on the police report both for Sindelar and, a few hours later, his partner Camilla Castagnola. But conspiracy theories still abound. The Gestapo had a file on him and had kept his cafe under surveillance. He had celebrated rather too wildly in front of a batch of furious Nazi top brass after scoring against Germany in a game to celebrate the Anschluss (a fixture that was “supposed” to end in a draw) then refused to play for the unified team. Was it murder? A state killing? Suicide? No one will ever truly know for certain, but Castagnola’s neighbours had complained about the chimney problems earlier in the month.

Sindelar’s passing serves as a tragic epilogue to the golden days of Austrian football, one that begins with old English gents and Scottish tourists and ends with Nazis, conspiracy, misery and death. In between there came something magical: the Wunderteam, pioneers of the flexible, passing style that inspired Hungary in the 1950s and was taken to its apotheosis by Holland in the 1970s and Spain in the past six years. They were, at their peak, probably the best in the world. But as far as the 1934 World Cup was concerned that peak came just too soon. Even if they weren’t quite at the heights they reached in 1932, they still stormed into the semi-finals on the back of a breathtaking run that had seen them score 101 goals in 31 games over three years. Only Italy, who had been dispatched 4-2 in a Gero Cup match prior to the tournament, stood between them and a place in the final. History beckoned. And then cruelly turned its back.

The story of football in Austria goes back to the late 19th century and the European expansion of British trade. As Willy Meisl, whose brother Hugo was the managerial mastermind behind the Wunderteam, points out in his seminal Soccer Revolution, the Austrian public took to the game with gusto and five years after the first match between two Vienna sides in 1894, the first British touring team turned up at the Westbahnhof. It didn’t go particularly well for the hosts – Oxford University beat a combined Vienna XI 15-0 on Easter Sunday 1899. Another game on Easter Monday finished 13-0. A year later the first professional side visited – Southampton again took on a combined team, this time winning only 6-0.


But the key visit came in 1905. Rangers hammered teams just as the Saints and the students had done a few years before, but they did it in such style that Austrian football would be moulded in their image over the next three decades (in turn Rangers were so impressed with the young goalkeeper Karl Pekarna that they gave him a contract and took him back to Glasgow). Pass and move became the Austrian groove.

In 1926 the 23-year-old Sindelar, darling of the intelligentsia, made his debut for the national side under Hugo Meisl, who had taken control of the team in 1919. The centre-forward was the embodiment of the Austrian style – the triumph of mind over muscle, the pen that was mightier than the sword. The bohemian bourgeoise had taken the game to their hearts in Vienna and in Der Papierene, the Paper Man, they saw a player whose artistry matched their own.

And Paper Man is no exaggeration. Footage of Sindelar is limited to a few seconds of scratchy black and white newsreel, but there is no mistaking his startlingly slight, almost gaunt, frame. As builds go he brings no one to mind more than C Montgomery Burns in an era where centre-forwards were supposed to be Rainier Wolfcastles.

Sindelar scored on his debut, a 2-1 win over the Czechs in Prague, bagged two more in a 7-1 demolition of Switzerland, and then a fourth in three games against Sweden. But Meisl then hesitated to go on breaking the mould, and turned back to the more traditional centre-forward strengths of Josef Uridil. Sindelar was The Paper Man, Uridil was The Tank.

Sindelar was restricted to a bit-part role for the rest of the 20s. He played in the 2-0 win over Switzerland in October 1928, had to wait nearly 18 months for his next taste of action in Prague in a 2-2 draw with Czechoslovakia and then spent a year watching from the stands as the national side stuttered over the course of seven matches, only two of which they won.

After that set of indifferent results, Meisl could ignore the clamour for his inclusion no longer and Sindelar was thrown back into the fray when Scotland visited Vienna in May 1931. Der Papierene scored his first international goal since 1926, Scotland were hammered 5-0 and the Wunderteam was born.

Over the next two years Sindelar, playing as a kind of 1930s prototype false nine, would score 16 goals in 16 games as the Austrians battered allcomers. Germany were belted 6-0 in Berlin, then taken apart 5-0 in Austria. The Swiss were beaten 8-1 in Basel, the Italians 2-1 in Vienna, the Hungarians 8-2, the Swedes 4-3.

“He was truly symbolical of Austrian soccer at its peak period: no brawn but any amount of brain,” writes Willy Meisl of Sindelar. “Technique bordering on virtuosity, precision work and an inexhaustible repertoire of tricks and ideas. He had a boyish delight in soccer exploits, above all in unexpected twists and moves which were quickly understood and shared by his partners brought up on the same wavelength, but were baffling to an opposition only a fraction of a second slower.”

In December 1932, with the Wunderteam perhaps at their peak, they became the third overseas side to be invited to England. Previous visitors from the continent had gone home with their tails between their legs – Belgium had been beaten 6-1 in 1923 and 4-0 a year later, while Spain had lost 7-1 at Highbury in 1931. With his team slightly off-colour in the matches leading up to the game at Stamford Bridge Meisl invited his old friend Jimmy Hogan, an Englishman and proponent of the passing style who had long been coaching in central Europe and would later be credited as the inspiration behind Hungary’s victory at Wembley in 1953, back into the coaching set-up having first introduced the Scotsman to Viennese football as far back as 1912.

England raced into a 2-0 lead early on and though the visitors dominated after the break they could only pull the score back to 4-3. “It was in that first half-hour that Austria lost her chance of bringing off a sensation compared with which Hungary’s victory at Wembley in 1953 would seem unimportant,” Willy Meisl mourned. For the English the result was seen as a triumph for physicality over finesse and an object lesson in the limitations of the passing game. They would have to wait another 21 years for their wake-up call and the Mighty Magyars.

Austria got that setback out of their collective system four days later with a 6-1 win in Belgium and normal service was resumed, the cream of the continent left mesmerised by the revolutionary – in more ways than one – movement of Sindelar and co. Der Papierene was far from alone – Josef Smistik was hugely influential in the centre-half role in Meisl’s 2-3-5. Josef Bican was only 21 at the time of the 1934 World Cup but would go on to be one of the greatest goalscorers of all time. Johann Horvath was a dervish at inside-left, Rudi Hiden one of the great pre-second world war goalkeepers.

By the time the tournament rolled around the Wunderteam were indeed past their peak but not by much – their four matches prior to the tournament had been that 4-2 win over Italy in Turin, a 3-2 away win against Switzerland, a 5-2 win over Hungary and a 6-1 win over Bulgaria in a qualifier. They began the tournament – then in a straight knockout format – with an unconvincing 3-2 extra-time win over France.

Then came the quarter-final tussle with the old enemy – Hungary. It was a full-blown battle in Bologna but Austria prevailed, with Horvath and Karl Zischek scoring in a 2-1 win.

While Austria had grown increasingly cerebral in their football, Italy, under Vittorio Pozzo, had become more and more combative. “In Luisito Monti, a naturalised Argentinian who had played in the 1930 World Cup final, Pozzo found the perfect man for the [MÉTODO]role – a hard, ruthless tackler who could also read the game and pass the ball,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in 2012. “Pozzo was an early devotee of man-marking and there was a steeliness and nationalistic fervour about his sides that was not to all tastes, but their effectiveness is beyond doubt.”

Their own quarter-final with Spain was a slugfest to make the battle in Bologna look tame. Ricardo Zamora, the Spanish goalkeeper, was so battered and bruised that he was unable to play in the replay the following day, a replay that Italy won 1-0 thanks to Giuseppe Meazza’s early goal.

That set up a classic clash of styles – Pozzo’s man-marking, bruising, steamroller versus Hugo Meisl’s “Danubian waltz”. The dark arts versus the passing purists. Athletes against aesthetes.

Pozzo’s athletes won out. On a San Siro pitch that was a bobbly bog patched with sand and with rain teaming down Italy took an early lead. Peter Platzer, in goal for the injured Rudi Hiden, collected a low cross, felt the full force of Meazza’s challenge and Enrique Guaita poked home what would prove, with Sindelar marked out of the game by Monti, to be the only goal of the game.

In the final Czechoslovakia, also proponents of the Meisl passing philosophy, took the lead with 19 minutes left but Raimundo Orsi equalised and Angelo Schiavio scored the winner for Italy in extra time. The triumph was not without controversy – the referee who had allowed Italy’s goal to stand in the semi-final, Ivan Eklind of Sweden, was conveniently enough appointed once more for the final. Spain had complained vehemently about a foul in the buildup to the Italy goal in the quarter-final replay. The shadow of Benito Mussolini lies across the tournament.

The Wunderteam’s chance of World Cup glory had gone, they failed to rouse themselves for the third-place play-off, losing to Germany, and though they reached the final of the 1936 Olympic football tournament (where they again lost to Italy), the Anschluss meant there would be no Austrian team at the 1938 World Cup, although several members of the 1934 squad turned out for the German team.

Sindelar was not among them. And less than five years after what could, maybe should, have been a crowning glory for Meisl and Austria’s Wunderteam, Der Papierene was dead, leaving behind a legacy of football genius and a sense of mystery that had not dissipated when, six months after the events on the Annagasse in Vienna in January 1939, the Nazi regime ordered the public prosecutor to close the as yet unresolved investigation into Sindelar’s death.

“The good Sindelar followed the city, whose child and pride he was, to its death,” wrote the writer Alfred Polgar, who was very much in the conspiracy camp. “He was so inextricably entwined with it that he had to die when it did. All the evidence points to suicide prompted by loyalty to his homeland. For to live and play football in the downtrodden, broken, tormented city meant deceiving Vienna with a repulsive spectre of itself. But how can one play football like that? And live, when a life without football is nothing?”

Romanticism aside, Austria’s Wunderteam deserve to be remembered – along with the Total Footballing Dutch, the Hungarians of 1954 and the Brazil teams of 1950 and 1982 – as one of the greatest sides never to lift the World Cup.

The Wunderteam: May 1931 to June 1934

May 16th 1931 Austria 5-0 Scotland
May 24th 1931 Germany 0-6 Austria
June 16th 1931 Austria 2-0 Switzerland
September 13th 1931 Austria 5-0 Germany
October 4th 1931 Hungary 2-2 Austria
November 29th 1931 Switzerland 1-8 Austria
March 20th 1932 Austria 2-1 Italy
April 24th 1932 Austria 8-2 Hungary
May 22nd 1932 Czechoslovakia 1-1 Austria
July 17th 1932 Sweden 3-4 Austria
October 2nd 1932 Hungary 2-3 Austria
October 23rd 1932 Austria 3-1 Switzerland
December 7th 1932 England 4-3 Austria
December 11th 1932 Belgium 1-6 Austria
February 12th 1933 France 0-4 Austria
April 9th 1933 Austria 1-2 Czechoslovakia
April 30th 1933 Hungary 1-1 Austria
June 11th 1933 Austria 4-1 Belgium
September 17th 1933 Czechoslovakia 3-3 Austria
October 1st 1933 Austria 2-2 Hungary
November 29th 1933 Scotland 2-2 Austria
December 10th 1933 Holland 0-1 Austria
February 11th 1934 Italy 2-4 Austria
March 25th 1934 Switzerland 2-3 Austria
April 15th 1934 Austria 5-2 Hungary
April 25th 1934 Austria 6-1 Bulgaria
May 27th 1934 Austria 3-2 France
May 31st 1934 Austria 2-1 Bologna
June 3rd 1934 Italy 1-0 Austria