Some footballers just exude a certain star quality that leads them to court attention far and wide. While some become heroes of the game, others are elevated to a higher plane altogether, where true celebrity lies. Football is strewn with players of such quality, character and charisma that they transcend the sport to become cultural icons.
One such player was Austria’s first celebrity footballer, Josef Uridil. Before Matthias Sindelar became the star of the Wunderteam, it was Uridil who was the hero of Austrian football. Indeed, Uridil and Sindelar came to represent the two sides of the aesthetic coin that demonstrated the shifting sands of Austrian football thinking under their ground-breaking coach Hugo Meisl.
Meisl, despite being the brains behind the pioneering approach Austria would ultimately develop in their early 1930s peak, was at heart an adherent to the British style of play. A great advocate of the passing game he had witnessed from Scottish touring sides to Vienna at the start of the 20th century, he maintained that the style demanded a physically strong, dominating centre-forward. At the time, there was nobody other than Josef Uridil who you would want for this role.
When a footballer earns the nickname “The Tank”, your mind’s eye can easily picture what type of a player he was. Uridil boasted a style of play so robust that he became an imposing phenomenon, battering his way through the tough tacking defences of the Viennese league.
It was a style he had developed in the tough playgrounds and streets of Ottakring, an edgy working-class district of Vienna, where he had grown up playing with his brother, Franz, who would also go on to become a footballer, though not of the calibre of Josef. Uridil came through various youth teams in the area before joining Rapid Vienna aged 18 in the summer of 1914; the club where he would not only find fame but also where he would come to be the footballing representation of the fans, identity and background.
It was his misfortune that the timing of this step up coincided with the outbreak of the First World War, putting a hold on his career before it had really got going. Drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in 1915, Uridil’s physical prowess was put to the test in rather more terrifying circumstances than the football fields of Vienna. Uridil was wounded in battle later that same year and returned home, but in the absence of official football, his career remained on hold until the war was done. He did play in a reduced wartime league, however, winning an unofficial title with Rapid in 1916.
As Austro-Hungary dissolved in defeat and Austria emerged in its own right, life returned to some semblance of normality – and for Uridil that meant a return to Rapid and the chance to re-establish a career that had already missed some of its prime years already.
Now 24, Uridil quickly made up for lost time becoming a striker of high regard, establishing himself as the foremost goal-getter in the burgeoning Viennese football scene. He averaged more than a goal a game in his first three post-war seasons, an astonishing return even for an era of high-scoring football. In the 1920/21 campaign, he scored 35 goals in 22 games for Rapid, as his star continued to rise.
His goals helped Rapid win the Austrian Cup in both 1919 and 1920, as well as league titles in both of those seasons. More titles followed in 1921 and 1923, with Uridil the top scorer in all but one of Rapid’s league successes. Indeed, the glory of 1921 saw a dramatic title playoff when, trailing 5-1 at half-time to Wiener AC, Rapid fought back to win 7-5. All seven of Rapid’s goals came from the boot of der Tank.
Still just 25, his legend was now secure. His performance in this iconic match led to the coining of the term “Rapid-geist” to refer to Uridil and his colleagues, meaning the will to fight together to the end, a measure of strength and endurance, letting no cause be lost. Uridil, of course, was the very personification of this ideal.
Remarkably this wasn’t the first time Uridil would score seven in a match for Rapid, having achieved this feat in a cup tie in 1919, but the fact that this came in a title-winning match, and that he had scored all of Rapid’s goals in such a dramatic style, elevated him to the status of Viennese hero, most notably amongst the working-class communities where Rapid fans generally came from.
To them, Uridil exemplified the roots of their support: the muscular, working-class identity they too lived and idolised. Rapid and Uridil were a perfect match. He represented them; he exemplified them; he was one of them.
A major sporting icon in Vienna, he also became a cultural icon of a city in need of heroes following the traumas of the war. In 1922, he became the subject of a cabaret song, Heute spielt der Uridil (Uridil will play today), made popular in the music and dance halls of the day written by popular singer Hermann Leopoldi, which spread his fame to those without an interest in football.
The Rapid fans gave him their own rendition of this song in the seasons which followed, while Uridil’s face adorned products such as soap, chocolate, fruit juice and more as he cashed in on his fame. There was even a beer named in his honour, while a biography of him, even at that young age, became a bestseller.
By February 1924, he was appearing on stage in the music halls as a compère, as well as in a film, Pflicht und Ehre (Duty and Honour), in the cinemas. He appeared at the premiere at Vienna’s largest cinema dressed in the green and white of Rapid, side by side with the most famous Austrian actor of the time, Hans Moser. At the end of the film, such was his fame, he was credited simply as ‘Uridil’.
Back on the field, Uridil’s prowess brought him international honours, earing selection for the national team for the first time in 1919. In an age of limited international football, however, his opportunities were sparse. If you add in the fact that Austria, as one of the defeated war nations, played even fewer games than other countries were able to in the years when Uridil was in his prime, then it’s understandable why he turned out just eight times. The highlight came in hitting a hat-trick against Switzerland; overall, he maintained a goal-per-game ratio for Austria.
In sport, timing can be everything. It was unfortunate for Uridil that his career was over before the peak of the Wunderteam in the 1930s. He was 30 when he played his final international match, with Austria’s zenith still to come. His part in the story of the Wunderteam, though, is in representing the old style of forward play that Austria subsequently progressed beyond.
Uridil had generally been selected ahead of the great Sindelar for Austria during the early years of the latter’s career. Uridil’s style had been everything that Meisl had wanted from a centre-forward, but ultimately it would be the shift away from the bustling, physical dynamism of Uridil to the deft, quick-passing, thoughtful movement of Sindelar that would push Austria to greatness. With that change of focus, the seeds of the Wunderteam were sewn.
The symbolism of Uridil, Rapid and its working-class heritage, making way for Sindelar of the bourgeois Austria Vienna, and the free-thinking of the coffee houses, adds to the narrative. However, the reality is that by the time Sindelar was reaching his prime, Uridil’s playing career was just about over anyway.
He played a season with First Vienna in the mid-20s before returning for a final stint with Rapid in 1927. For two years his focus was more on his celebrity than on football, but the lure of the game that had made his name was too strong. He eventually moved into coaching, becoming something of an itinerant, working all over Europe.
He had begun with a brief stint as player-coach in Italy with Bari, before heading to the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Yugoslavia and Romania, as well as back home in Austria. It was in Romania that he earned the chance to go to the World Cup, taking charge of the national team at the 1934 tournament; the very same tournament that the Wunderteam were one of the favourites to win. It was to be a short-lived adventure, however, Romania losing to the eventual finalists Czechoslovakia in the first round.
Fittingly, as his coaching career neared its conclusion, he also took the reins of his beloved Rapid for the 1953/54 season, much to the delight of his adoring public. His season was bookended by the twin highlights of a 6-1 victory over Arsenal near the start of his tenure and an Austrian league title at the end; Uridil and Rapid proving a winning combination once again.
But it was his no-nonsense style and astonishing goalscoring record as a player that had secured Uridil’s legend, and his fame truly transcended the sport at a time and place in need of heroes to celebrate. As one news report in the early 1920s neatly put it: “Others scored goals before him, but not one of them had his enormous momentum, the irresistible force with which he powered across the football field. Woe betide the opponent who dared to cross the path of this racing machine. He was knocked over, almost crushed and decomposed into his chemical constituents.”
Uridil represented the people in their game, and they loved him for it. He was a force of nature, a presence to terrify those tasked with stopping him. A decade before the Wunderteam earned domestic and international plaudits, and Sindelar, Bican and Meisl came to the height of their fame, it was Josef Uridil who was Austria’s first football hero, their first footballing celebrity.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams