In the canon of modern football outside of Austria, Matthias Sindelar, voted Austria’s greatest ever football player in 2004, does not get the recognition he deserves. A magician on the pitch, blessed with mesmerising dribbling and searing pace, Sindelar was key part of Hugo Meisl’s legendary Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s that wrestled football from its British founders and made the continent fall in love with the beautiful game.
In his life, he was the subject of songs, books, films and advertising campaigns and his death spawned countless myths and conspiracy theories.
Sindelar’s early life was neither fascinating nor enigmatic. He was born Matěj Šindelář in the modern-day Czech region of Olomouc in 1903 to a modest Catholic family. Two years later, Matthias, his three siblings and parents arrived in the industrial and rapidly expanding building site that was Vienna in the 1900s. His father was a bricklayer and would die fighting in the First World War just a few years later, leaving Sindelar’s mother with the double burden of running a home and earning a living sufficient to support four children. Early twentieth century Vienna is characterised by the pastimes of its middle class and upper class residents, yet Matthias’ celebrity status allows us a new window into working class lives, too often left out of Viennese historiography.
Much like other children of his social class, Matthias’ childhood was spent in the increasingly urban outdoors. From ducking and diving between precariously overloaded carts, dashing away from police officers along cobbled streets, and rejoicing in the outrage of shopkeepers whose businesses had come under fire from battered leather footballs, Matthias developed his signature balletic tactics whilst being an ordinary, mischievous child. However, what made him special amongst his friends was just how phenomenally talented he was.
In terms of social mobility, Sindelar’s ability gave him an option unavailable to most. He was able to move away from the working-class convention at the time of doing what your forefathers had done, and forge a new path. At fifteen, Sindelar joined ASV Hertha Vienna. At 21, he moved to the Jewish-community-linked FK Austria Vienna, one of the biggest and most decorated clubs in the capital and quickly became a favourite amongst the fans. He dazzled spectators from across the class spectrum with his speed and unrivalled technical ability. Eventually, Sindelar would earn the nickname ‘Der Papierene’, ‘the wafer’, for his ability to glide past aggressive challenges despite his unassuming stature.
Where Sindelar really became a star though, was under the tutelage of Hugo Meisl and alongside Austria’s golden generation of players in the Austrian national Wunderteam of the 1930s. Guided by Meisl’s tactical acumen, notorious discipline and motivational skills, the Wunderteam went on an unprecedented fourteen match unbeaten run that stretched for over eighteen months from April 1931 to December 1932. Their spiderweb passing patterns, determination and impeccable organisation, already hallmarks of the team when Sindelar joined it in 1926, were taken to new heights. In 1931, Scotland, a powerhouse of the international game and much of the source of football’s early innovation, were dispatched 5-0, marking the beginning of the Vienna School of Football’s international dominance. In the hodgepodge of national, religious and social groups that was early twentieth century Austria, the Wunderteam’s appeal was universal. For perhaps the first time ever, Austrians could take pride in being the best at something that everyone could understand: football.
Although the majority of Austrian players were working class, from the outset football became a fascination of the middle classes. The lavish coffee houses of Vienna, famed for their intellectual conversations, were abuzz with talk of Sindelar and the Wunderteam. Players’ performances joined the rotation of discussions about Klimt’s paintings, Mahler’s symphonies and Schnitzler’s novels. Football became something to be theorised, scrutinised and romanticised.
At the heart of this was Matthias Sindelar. He captured imaginations like no one before him. He became a celebrity – European football’s first. He appeared in advertisements for milk and watches. His popularity crossed class and cultural thresholds. As a player at Austria Vienna, a team with strong Jewish connections, he was a friend to the Jewish community, leading to many rumours about him being Jewish himself. He was talked about as much in the coffee houses as he was on the construction sites his father had once worked on. Everyone knew Sindelar.
Austria’s first footballing legend
And then it all began to unravel. In March 1938, Austria became part of Nazi Germany through the Anschluss, or ‘joining’, of the German-speaking peoples. The Austrian top league was effectively wiped out. The Wunderteam became the plaything of Nazi officers. In a game against Germany in April 1938, Sindelar is said to have openly mocked the Nazis in the crowd and allegedly showboated all game – at times dribbling past half the team only to flick the ball an inch wide of the post with the goal gaping. As well as being offended and angry, the attending Nazi officials couldn’t help but be impressed. The Nazis asked Sindelar to play for Germany. Matthias, maybe due to his Social Democratic leanings which had become more pronounced since Anschluss, or because of solidarity with the Jews of his club, or indeed perhaps because he simply didn’t want to, rejected their approaches.
Just a few months later in January 1939, Sindelar was found dead in an apartment with his girlfriend, Camilla Castagnola. Allegedly, they were victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. This may just have been an unfortunate accident, but claims of government foul play were made, with people citing his open disdain for the new Nazi regime as motivation to get rid of Sindelar. Claims were made that Camilla was Jewish and their deaths were a result of ever more toxic anti-Semitism, but such claims are largely unfounded. Others, such as writer Friedrich Torberg, believed the couple had committed suicide, drawing romantic parallels between their death and the death of the Austrian nation. The true cause of their deaths we will never know, but in any case the life of Austria’s first and perhaps greatest footballing legend was cut tragically short. His death has become another part of Austrian nostalgia for the cultural decadence of the early 20th Century.
Sindelar’s life is fascinating in its own right, but even more so when used as a means for historical investigation. Although not Jewish, Sindelar played for one of the most Jewish clubs in Vienna at the time and exhibited a kindness to and fondness of Jewish communities that proves that the substantial anti-Semitism in the Austrian capital was far from universal. His well-documented and unremarkable working class childhood gives us an opportunity to examine and understand a social group too often left behind by the history books. And despite not being born in what we now call Austria, he became an icon and a figurehead for the Austrian national team that became a source of immense national pride.
We could attach a modern significance to the end of this article. We could say something grandiose or sweeping about populism, racism, Nazism, intolerance or xenophobia. But we think the story of Matthias Sindelar speaks for itself.
By Avram Liebenau and Abigail Collier
Avram was a political risk analyst at a consultancy company in London and did a degree in Russian and History at UCL with a focus in Russian and Eastern European economic history. Check out his latest articles right here!
Abigail holds a degree in German and History from UCL, specializing in East European cultural and social history. She wrote her undergraduate dissertation on football’s potential as a source for historical investigation and also regularly writes about food and society.