How Vienna’s coffee houses gave rise to a new era of intellectualism in football

How Vienna’s coffee houses gave rise to a new era of intellectualism in football

The intellectual scene in football has taken a sharp upturn with the emergence of quality publications over the last half a decade that fearlessly delve into the niche and fascinating aspects of the game that may otherwise be overlooked. Alongside this, the rise of social media has allowed us to engage more intimately with tactical theoreticians and pundits, giving our understanding of the game’s nuances a chance to thrive. Essentially, we know more about football than ever before.

It’s hard to imagine that we could trace the emergence of this facet of football culture all the way back to interwar Vienna’s coffee houses. It was here that the game became an intellectual pursuit, not just a sport, and it helped give rise to one of the most ephemerally wonderful international sides of all time. As well as being a movement about the unrelenting desire for growth and development, it was also one marred by tragedy.

While intellectualism in football is wide-reaching like never before, it’s not so much a modern phenomenon as it is a renaissance. If we look back at Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, his insights often bordered on the poetic. The sport has never been absent of the intellectual. 

Musing on the depth of feeling proffered by our beloved stadia in his classic work Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Galliano asked us, “Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try it. Stand in the middle of the field and listen. There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators.”

Understanding how empty it is be gifted us the perspective of how it would feel when full. Not necessarily with people, but with noise, apprehension and endless roars of joy and pain. Galeano’s seemingly heightened perceptions of the subtleties of the game allowed us a lens by which to gaze deeper into its eyes. It’s hard to imagine a sports desk pundit offering up the same vision.

The romanticisation and intellectualisation of a physical endeavour is present in football more so than any other sport. Certainly, it’s popularity in Europe helped. Only in Italy would a man like Luigi Veronelli exist, an intellectual and wine critic whose interpretation of footballing events is given as much weight as any specialist on the subject.

Our reverence for these unorthodox interpreters of the game didn’t originate in Italy or with Galeano, though. It was in Vienna, a city and culture reeling from the Great War.

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When we think about football and coffee, for some it will evoke images of Football Italia’s James Richardson sitting in Rome, dressed in his dishevelled attire, closer to a bohemian history teacher than a television presenter. For others, it might be images of the most obsessive of all managers, Marcelo Bielsa, or one of his many disciples who will gladly hole-up for hours in restaurants and cafés if the conversation is flowing. We probably don’t think of Austria.

Coffee houses in Vienna are unlike anywhere else in the world. Their environment seeks to foster a conversational atmosphere. Bedecked in heavily wooded interiors, they sit somewhere between an old English pub and a country cabin in Scandinavia. They are reflective spaces that encourage people to engage. Walk into one and you can feel the studious presence of bookworms as they habitually clink their glasses with their silver spoons, or the tense charisma of business deals being hashed out right next to two elderly gentlemen fondly recalling moments of their lives spent in this breathtaking city.

Unlike in Italy, it isn’t about shooting back an espresso, or in Portugal where the café and bar amalgamate into a semi-restaurant to congregate with friends. In Vienna, one cup entitles you to your seat. There is no rush. They are extensions of the public sphere.

Not renowned as a superpower in the sport, Austria and its teams are still fairly consistent additions to tournament rosters at all levels. Devoid of the illustrious history of their northern neighbours, the country seems to find itself hard-pressed into settling for its footballing identity. It’s an issue that persists and one that was the raison d’être of the Viennese coffee house.

During the movement’s heyday, the country witnessed the rise of Hugo Meisl’s Wunderteam – a squad of players whose panache and talent invigorated European football and galvanised the coffee-house movement. The wealthy banker was instrumental in putting the alpine nation on the football map, going so far as to take Austria to the 1934 World Cup semi-finals before defeat to the eventual champions Italy.

The team’s idiosyncratic movements and tactical approaches birthed a string of victories leading up to the World Cup, which became known as the ‘Danubian whirl’. The purveyors of the movement’s theoretical backbone that spent their caffeine-fuelled days in the coffee houses contributed significantly to this Danubian School of Football.

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The team were seen as being rather more sophisticated than any other during the difficult interwar period. Whilst club and international squads were the manifestation of such thought, the coffee houses were the fertile soil where ideas on coaching, tactics and style emerged.

Those who chose to spend their days exploring a player’s strengths and the ramifications of the board’s latest decision had found more than a home. They found a community. It is in such similar environments that, although separated physically, online platforms facilitate now. Ideas are out in the open to be challenged and built upon.

Jonathan Wilson in Inverting the Pyramid shines a light on this crucial era. Outside of Britain at the time, Austria had the most thriving and compelling league, attracting swathes of fans week in and week out. Wilson explains that the introduction and subsequent proliferation of football on the continent takes a more “complex arc” than in its British boarding-school home. It remains faithful to the order as a sport introduced by the wealthy and then adopted by the working-class, but where it diverts is in the European intellectual movement’s engagement with the game. 

The idea of the intellectual is distinctly European, specifically mainland Europe. Football in the United Kingdom became a talking point in pubs and red-top papers. The Austrian intellectuals, however, regarded it as something akin to a sociological microcosm of life and society. Variety ruled supreme in such social landscapes. A chess player’s analysis of tactics may come from an ancient game, but why would that make it any less important? The answer is that it didn’t. The diversity of people meant that there was a spellbinding range of thought.

Naturally, people gravitate towards their own, either in inclination or by proximity.. Tribalism is almost always present. It’s only in the manifestation of its characteristics that we see variation. Vienna was no different. Wilson explains that “players, supporters, directors and writers would mix. Fans of Austria Vienna, for instance, met in the Cafê Parsifal; Rapid fans in the Cafê Holub.” 

Think of the ultras bars that are congregated around most major European club grounds now. The difference is that these venues were filled with dapper gentleman divulging their thoughts on the beautiful game. It was coffee not beer, chats and not chants. In the highly theoretical world inhabited by such a crowd, individuals are often heralded as having a deeper significance than their lives would first allow us to believe. Football players were no different. They too were endowed with a significance well beyond their role on the field. 

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One man could represent hope for those in the doldrums of poverty. Another could pop out as a leader of men of a certain faith or from a certain ethnic background. In other cafés, the clientele would be mixed and as such, so would the discussions. They gave rise to less clannish understandings of the game and instead took on the sport as a whole. 

The ideal embodiment of this time and place was the Ring Café, which was, according to Wilson, “Originally the club café of the anglophile elite cricket community, it soon became the central meeting point for the Viennese football scene. As a place where foreign tours, transfers etc were discussed, where everybody could put in a word at the round table.” It’s easy to see that during an era of political uncertainty, the democratic values of the coffee-house would prevail.

In these environments, much more than mere fan bias, it was the players who represented their country that were the darlings. One particular hero of the movement was a man bequeathed with unerring genius and a trajectory that could only have been halted by the inevitably tragic circumstances that fell upon the Austrian capital. Matthias Sindelar was embraced by the coffee house casuals, in part for his affiliation to the socialist ideals that were spreading throughout European cities of the time and also for his uniquely devastating quality on the pitch.

With his eventual fate unknown and a little way off, the footballing intelligentsia lauded his “ethereal way of moving” and theatre critic Alfred Polgar enthused about his chess-like approach to the game. He seemed more refined and more thought-through than other player. In many ways, the main voices of this emerging urban thinktank saw themselves in Sindelar.

Writing about his deftness on the ball, Polgar likened him to that which he knew – a storyline. Drawing a parallel between Sindelar and his fellow writers he spoke of a goal-scoring effort in a lofty manner. “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.”

The increasing acclaim that the player and the movement gained was symbiotic. These cafés “fed off its own legends and reputations … it was this myth-making dimension, this ideal of immortality, that the coffee house was perfectly equipped to nurture and promote.”

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Both player and patron were aware that something unique was being built on the leafy streets of the Austrian capital. Their emergence also meant that they drew the unwarranted attention of the oncoming Nationalist Socialist soldiers and generals who had previously adopted football as a tool for propaganda in Germany.

Sindelar’s storied career with Austria Vienna naturally drew the admiring, if not bitter, glances of his oppressors. The club’s Jewish roots were enough to make them stand out for scorn, let alone the fact they had such a star in their ranks who was the beloved folk-hero of the local intelligentsia. After the annexation of the country, a game was arranged between Germany and Austria, billed the Reconciliation Match. It was agreed that a cordial 0-0 draw would be best, but Sindelar refused to participate in this narrative and scored the game’s opener before celebrating in front of high-ranking Nazi officials after a second goal.

Within the year he was found dead in an apparent accident. The truth has yet to surface, but speculation has never been quelled. His death in such mysterious circumstances and during such a climate had a knock-on effect for the coffee house patrons. In a sense, their image as bohemians at the fringes had been vindicated. They were the bourgeoisie outlaws of football. In other ways, Sindelar’s death was also the death of their movement.

Their idea of somehow attaining a degree of intellectual freedom through football had been quelled. Accident or suicide, it would have been uncharacteristic for a self-mythologising movement not to romanticise such a decisive moment.

Places like those Viennese coffee-houses are now long gone. Instead, that space has moved online to platforms like Twitter. Rather than the smell of warm soup and aromatic blends of coffee flirting their way through the air, we are sharing opinions surrounded by a myriad of distractions. One can only wonder what thoughts we’d be able to conjure if we had a politician on one table, a theatre director at another, and a group of our friends next to us, all talking about our beloved game. The writers, critics and coaches involved with the movement truly wanted to see the sport flourish and, for a while, with Sindelar and the Wunderteam, it did. 

Journalist Dominic Bliss states: “It is because of their approach to understanding football that the game continues to advance with every generation. And we have the coffee houses of Vienna, Budapest and Prague to thank for it.” I’d be inclined to agree. As much as the tangible legacy was mightily impressive, so too was the idea that genuinely fascinating outcomes were possible in such an open environment. Although a player died, along with a movement, their ideas never will.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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