Until the tanks rolled in and Adolf Hitler ruined everything, Vienna in the 1930s was a vibrant and wonderful place. It was a cultural hothouse that produced such unique minds as Freud, Schnitzler and Hayek and the city’s many coffee houses fizzed with passionate debate on anything the intelligentsia deemed worthy.
Amongst the heated discussions on socialism and polemics on Carl Fruhling piano concertos was a chin-stroking appreciation of football, which the Viennese bourgeoisie held in equal esteem to the highbrow. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given that Austria at that time was blessed with their fabled Wunderteam, a national side that dominated Europe with a sublime array of supernatural talent that included Walter Nausch and the artful Josef Smistik. The star and captain of this incredible side was Matthias Sindelar, The Paper Man.
Sindelar was given the moniker of Der Papierene due to his slight build and the genius contained within his idiosyncratic movement lent itself to cerebral analysis.
Theatre critic Alfred Polgar noted: “He had brains in his legs and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running.”
Quite simply he was the pre-war Pelé, a man who bestowed onto the world a calibre of football the likes of which had never been witnessed before. He was a one-man Vienna Waltz, dribbling past bewildered opponents as if they belonged to an earlier era. His exceptional ability quickly made him both an idol of the factory workers and feted darling of the café society and eventually brought such fame that it led to prominence in America and lucrative endorsements of suits and cars. It was a fortune he largely blew on gambling and women.
‘Sindi’ – another of his nicknames along with the grandiose ‘Mozart of Football’ – played the game, according to a newspaper at the time, “like a grandmaster played chess”. There was ingenuity and a cunning wit to the dazzling adventure of his football. It was this wit that many believe ultimately led to his death.
In 1938, Austria was annexed into the German Third Reich, an occupation that became known as the Anschluss. As anyone who has enjoyed The Great Escape whilst stuffed full of Boxing Day turkey sandwiches will testify the Nazis were great believers in the power of football as a propaganda tool. Here, under their enforced ownership was a marquee commodity; a Wunderteam they could rebrand as their own.
The newly formed National Socialist government wasted no time in disbanding the country’s professional league and expelling the Jewish clubs. Grounds were seized and any player or official of Jewish ethnicity was ostracised. Some fled abroad, others fatally remained. The country itself was renamed Ostmark becoming, in essence, a province of the Reich.
The players who survived these purges were coerced into joining the German national side. Some agreed with extreme reluctance. Others were enthusiastic, buying in to the depraved ideology. Sindelar, single-minded as ever, outright refused. Or at least he did initially.
There was one further game to be played in Austria’s traditional colours – a condition Sindelar put to the Nazis in order for his participation – that was to be staged against Germany in a showcase reunification derby, a glorified friendly intended as a skewed celebration of the former Austria being barbarously assimilated into the German Empire.
In keeping with the symbolism of the event, the New Order decreed that a low-scoring draw would be the preferred result. Instead, in an extraordinary act of defiance, watching Nazi dignitaries found themselves mocked, their reign of terror openly belittled by a man so slight he could have blown away in a wisp of wind.
With gleeful devilment Sindelar spurned a host of simple chances throughout the first half, placing the ball inches wide on each occasion as if to illustrate just how easy it all was for the grandmaster against the supposed master race. A casual observer, unaware of the player’s God-given talent, might have assumed he was having something of a stinker. In fact he was disdainfully patronising the oppressive forces who were already marking him down as a man who was “very friendly with Jews”. He was taunting those who had brought fear and division upon his beloved nation.
Alongside his striking partner-in-crime Karl Sesta he continued to play with aloof disinterest until halfway through the second period when Sindi decided it was finally time to stop toying with his prey. He nonchalantly finished off an exquisite move with Seta adding another shortly after with a thunderous shot from distance.
The thousands who were crammed into Vienna’s Prater Stadium roused themselves into rediscovering previously silenced voices, loudly chanting “Österreich! Österreich!” and rejoicing in a patriotism that was elsewhere being denied them.
At the final whistle Sindelar ran towards the box containing the Nazi high command and danced a solitary last waltz.
Less than a year later, aged just 35, he was discovered dead in his apartment in the arms of Camilla Castagnola, a former prostitute who was his girlfriend. They were found together in bed. The official cause – offered up after a rather token police investigation – was carbon monoxide poisoning due to a blocked chimney flue; it is certainly true that neighbours complained of a similar defective flue only days earlier.
Equal credence, however, is given to the possibility of murder given that the Nazis ordered the more thorough enquiries of the Public Prosecutor to be closed down, a policeman involved in the immediate search of the flat soon after informed a newspaper that the heating worked fine. A friend of Sindelar’s claimed years later that a public official was bribed into documenting his death as an accident to ensure that the people’s hero received a state funeral. Twenty thousand mourners attended, an occasion that writer Robin Stummer has since described as “Vienna’s first, and last, rally against the Nazis”.
Certainly there is ample evidence to surmise that the authorities were behind Sindelar’s death; if his provocative actions the previous April had angered the Nazi hierarchy his persistent defiance thereafter incensed them.
Several times he was “requested” to join his former teammates in the German national sports training organisation. Each time he point-blank refused, claiming he was now retired. Instead, on hearing that a Jewish acquaintance was being forced to sell his bar for a pittance to local party bureaucrats in a “legal seizure”, he stepped in with a generous cash offer and reinvented himself as a café owner. Gone were the sharp suits and his hair was now slicked down to denote respectability. Sindi happily spent his days serving coffee to customers who had recently talked about him with awe and reverence.
Many of the clientele in this run-down bar in Favoriten were Jewish, and Sindelar was soon attracting the attentions of the feared Gestapo who noted he was “unsympathetic to the party”. Indeed, Sindelar had never hidden his political leanings and had insolently – and publicly – maintained close friendships with Jews throughout the Anschluss. Reports were duly made and surveillance undertaken on his premises and movements.
Since January 23 1939, when the body of the most gifted footballer of the pre-war era was found poisoned – one way or another – in his flat, an industry of rumours have whispered through the years. Some say murder. Others insist it was a tragic but accidental demise. More theorise that he was killed over gambling debts or even took his own life.
Whatever the truth, it is perhaps fitting that the passing of Matthias Sindelar was, and remains, as tantalising, elusive and extraordinary as the football he gave to the world.
By Stephen Tudor @TheDaisyCutter1