Matthias Sindelar was the soul of the Austrian Wunderteam
Matthias Sindelar was the soul of the Austrian Wunderteam

In 1930’s Vienna, the coffee houses bred an intellectual culture. These became the meeting points at which intellectual men — mostly Jewish — met to discuss intellectual matters. As they philosophised over politics, art, literature, music and religion, it took only a matter of time before football joined in the ranks.

It is here — long before AS Roma with Francesco Totti and Barcelona with Lionel Messi — where the idea of the false9 was first conceptualised. It was an idea that had already been informally used by teams prior to this. But in the coffee houses of Vienna,

it took on explanatory form and theoretical concept.

This was because in one of the local sides, there was a player whom was described as having brains in his legs. Matthias Sindelar played for Austria Vienna and he was perfect for a society that encouraged free thought. His play challenged the norm – drifting inwards towards the midfield from a center forward position. His slight stature accounted for the nickname Der Papierene — the Paper Man. He played football in a manner that suggested his genius transcended tactics. No wonder he became known as the Mozart of football. Like his fellow countryman, his touch on a football seemed to be a composition that appealed to the muses.

It was not however Sindelar alone who formed the core of what would be a great international side. In Josef Smistik, Austria had an elegant attacking center half — one who could not only break play but could dispatch passes to his teammates with consummate ease. He signified the ultimate strength of this side — a side that relied on patience and technique rather than brute strength. Mixed in with that was fluidity in movement that led to their style being described as the Danubian whirl.

That name came from the Danube River, and signified the football philosophy that was propagated in Central and Eastern Europe by the English coach, Jimmy Hogan. For the countries through which the river passed, it seemed to form a metaphorical source of knowledge of how to play the game that emanated from one stream of thought. Germany, Hungary, and Austria, among many others can trace their football history to Hogan. In the 1930’s, they became known as students of the Danubian school.

Among many of Hogan’s disciples was Hugo Meisl. In fact whenever Meisl had any qualms about the Austrian side that he was coaching, he usually contacted his mentor for advice. More often than not however, pupil was right. It was he that had gone against the grain and started utilising Sindelar in that deep lying forward role. It was a tactic that would win hearts for a while.

For a period that still looked to England and Britain for tactical innovation, the Austrians re-imagined their own tactical ingenuity.

This team came to be known as the Wunderteam.

The Austrian XI in their Danubian 2-3-5 formation that faced Italy at the 1934 World Cup semis
The Austrian XI in their Danubian 2-3-5 formation that faced Italy at the 1934 World Cup semis

Wonderful as they were however, they rarely showed it when it mattered. Their dominance in the Dr Gero Cup (a Central European regional tournament) never really transpired onto the world stage. For starters, this side constantly gave England – the benchmark for superiority at the time – problems but never enough of them for the world to take notice. It led the English media to conclude that for all their artistic football, they just lacked the punch to finish off games.

It is probably why Roland Allen, writing for the Evening Star concluded thus, ‘It looks fine, it is fine: when the Austrians have learned how to turn all their cleverness into something that counts: when … they have organised the winning of football matches as highly as they have organised the taming of a football, they will make [everyone] sit up and take notice.’

This ironically, was a skepticism that Meisl himself had of the team he was coaching. Constantly, they proved him right. All his efforts seemed to end in glorious defeat rather than accomplished victory.

And having then not travelled to Uruguay for the inaugural World Cup, they found themselves in the semi-finals of their debut tournament in 1934. There, they came up against hosts Italy in what became a clash of styles. With Italian cynicism and athleticism having its day, a 1-0 win was secured. Austria rarely troubled the Italian goal as their main threat, Sindelar, was marked out of the game by the Italians.

Four years later in France, Austria should have participated in the World Cup but the country had by then become politically subsumed by Germany. Thus, the Wunderteam produced wonders no more as it essentially existed no more.

Coffee houses became a thing of the past as fascism took over the country and threatened to take over a continent. Sindelar’s influence diminished — more because he hated the Nazi regime that was taking over his country, himself allied to Social Democratic views. He continually refused to play for a united Germany side that Austria now became a part of.

His mockery of the new regime would see his suspicious death in January 1939. That would also be the year when political tensions led to the eruption of the Second World War. It was Sindelar and the Wunderteam however who had produced the first truly dominant international football side that carried with it one blemish — they never learned how to win matches in the same manner they had learnt how to tame a football.

Great International Teams that Never Won : Introduction

 [image courtesy of imortaisdofutebol]