Football’s history is littered with scores of talented players who have tragically died prematurely. Be it through devastating accidents, excesses of mortal vices, or simply ill health, a host of footballers have had their lives cut horribly short. Few, however, have died in circumstances as controversial as Matthias Sindelar.
The esteemed Austrian was found dead on the morning of 23 January 1939 in his flat in Vienna at the age of just 35. His friend Gustav Hartmann found the mercurial centre-forward naked in his bed alongside his girlfriend Camilla Castignola, who herself died later in hospital. The police swiftly ruled that both had died of asphyxiation by carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty heater and ended the enquiry within two days. Six months later, however, the Public Prosecutor had not yet reached a conclusion when the Nazi regime instructed the case to be closed once and for all.
The development sparked a series of theories. Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung suggested Sindelar had been “victim of murder through poisoning”, while one of his friends, Egon Ulbrich, told a BBC documentary in 2003 that local officials had been bribed to record his death as an accident. In his poem Gedicht vom Tode eines Fußballers (“Ballad on the Death of a Footballer”), Friedrich Torberg presented yet another theory, suggesting Sindelar had committed suicide after feeling “disowned” by what he described as the “New Order.” That theories over Sindelar’s death continue to abound almost eight decades since his death show the magnitude of the man and the impact it had on and off the pitch.
Widely considered the greatest footballer Austria ever produced, Sindelar’s first exposure to the sport came in the streets of Vienna. It was there his family had moved from Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Sindelar – originally born Matěj Šindelář – was just two years old. From the cobbled streets of the Austrian capital, he quickly graduated to the turf of Austria Vienna’s Franz Horr-Stadion.
Having joined the team in 1924, two years before it shed its Wiener Amateur-SV monicker, Sindelar’s rise to stardom was almost immediate. Two Austrian Cups and a league title arrived in the next two seasons before a further three domestic cups followed in 1933, 1935 and 1936, the former and the latter of which came alongside an added Mitropa Cup.
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It was with the national team, though, that he acquired his famous moniker – Der Papierene (The Paper Man) – because of his slight build and through his establishing himself as arguably the biggest star of his era. “In a way he had brains in his legs,” the theatre critic Alfred Polgar wrote, “and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running. Sindelar’s shot hit the back of the net like the perfect punchline, the ending that made it possible to understand and appreciate the perfect composition of the story, the crowning of which it represented.”
At a time when Vienna was undisputedly the cultural centre of the world, Austria’s Wunderteam was to football what Carl Fruhling’s virtuoso piano concertos were to music; what Sigmund Freud’s theories were to science; something to be appreciated, discussed and dissected in detail in equal measure in the many coffee houses scattered across the Austrian capital.
Blessed with a fabulous array of talent that included Walter Nausch and Josef Smistik, as well as Sindelar, the national side went 14 games unbeaten between April 1931 and December 1932. The streak included 5-0 and 6-0 wins over Germany, a trouncing of Switzerland by the same score, and an 8-2 walloping of Hungary. In 1932, the Wunderteam clinched the Central European Cup, the predecessor to the current European Championship, however, their bid for glory at the 1934 World Cup ended in the semi-finals, when they lost 1-0 to Italy in controversial fashion.
By the time Sindelar and his teammates qualified for the World Cup four years later, the world had changed dramatically. For Austrians in particular, the change had an even bigger impact as it began just outside their borders, where the wheels of the Nazi machine began moving at an alarming speed. On 12 March 1938, Austrians watched as Germany annexed their country.
While prior to the Anschluss the idea of unification between Austria and Germany had received support even outside Nazi circles, the move only came to pass after the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria in a macabre dress rehearsal of scenes that would soon be common across Europe.
Like many of his compatriots, Sindelar had made no mystery of his dislike for the Nazi regime or his Social Democratic leanings. Less than a month after the Anschluss, he was selected to play in a so-called “Reconciliation Match” staged between Germany and the Ostmark – the name Nazi propaganda used to replace that of the formerly independent Federal State of Austria – to mark the birth of a new, united team.
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The match proved to be the most extraordinary of swansongs for Sindelar. His team had allegedly received orders not to score against Germany and he missed an unusual number of chances in the first half. Whether that was done on purpose to, as some modern observers have claimed, mock the orders remains highly dubious and almost impossible to ascertain.
When he did eventually find the net in the second half, he proceeded to celebrate in front of a directors box full of high-ranked Nazi officials. Unwise though it was, there is nothing that suggests his celebration was responsible for his death the following January. Over time, though, conjecture developed into a rumour, which then gave way to speculation and ultimately snowballed into a lasting myth.
What is indisputable is that, in August of the same year, Sindelar purchased a cafe from Leopold Drill, a Jew who had been forced to give up his business under new legislation. The striker’s reluctance to put up Nazi posters did not go down well with the local authorities, but that too is a tenuous link to be considered the cause of Sindelar’s untimely death.
Similarly, his religion had almost certainly very little to do with it, though it continued to fuel the flames of his mythology. The fact he was of Czech descent and had, like a large number of Jews, left Moravia for Vienna, in addition to his playing for Austria Vienna – a team that represented the Jewish bourgeoisie in Vienna – led to the suggestion Sindelar was Jewish. These claims, though, were unfounded and ultimately mattered little in the context of his suspicious death.
Whatever the cause of his passing, more than 20,000 mourners attended Sindelar’s funeral, an occasion which has since been described as “Vienna’s first, and last, rally against the Nazis” by writer Robin Stummer. The truth about Sindelar’s death might never see the light of day but, fittingly, he has retained the aura of mystery, even eight decades since his passing, that his life and career deserved.
By Dan Cancian @mufc_dan87