How Austria’s Wunderteam defied the Nazis for one last act of greatness

How Austria’s Wunderteam defied the Nazis for one last act of greatness

This was the match that had it all: historical significance, political intrigue, an outpouring of patriotism for a nation lost, legendary players, and great goals. It has also proved the source of various myths, as the symbolism of the match left every incident open to all variety of interpretations, depending on what pre-conceptions you were seeking to confirm. 

And all of this in an international match that was unofficial, and as such is not a part of the official histories of either nation. The simple reason for this is that one of the countries involved had ceased to exist, subsumed by the other just days beforehand.

Austria’s Wunderteam of the 1930s was one of the great pre-war international sides. Under the pioneering coach Hugo Meisl, Austria had developed the “Danubian Whirl”; a ground-breaking approach involving the interchanging of the five forward players, and a quick-passing style inspired by the Scottish teams that toured Vienna in the early 20th-century. 

This style had taken Austria to international renown peaking in the early 1930s, frustratingly mistimed slightly ahead of the 1934 World Cup. They were still major contenders, if not quite at their peak, and only narrowly lost to the eventual winners, Italy, in a controversial semi-final.

By 1938, much of the team was still intact, and while further from their prime were still very much a force to be reckoned with. Going into the 1938 World Cup, therefore, Austria were once again one of the primary challengers to Italy’s crown. That all changed on 12 March 1938, when the annexation of Austria by the German Reich began. 

Hitler crossed into Austria greeted by what the propaganda of the regime had ensured was a country decorated with swastikas, near to his birthplace of Braunau. From there he travelled on to Vienna, announcing the annexation from the balcony of the Imperial Palace. It was signed into law the very next day.

With Austrian independence now gone, so too was the national football team. The Austrian Football Association was shut down as an independent organisation a few weeks later, recreated as a part of the German football authorities. Viennese football, with a significantly Jewish influence in some clubs, was swiftly purged and reorganised. 

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Jewish club Hakoah Vienna was closed down, its results that season stricken from the record books. Austria Vienna, known as FK Austria at the time, saw its board sacked with a Nazi Party official installed in their place. He sought to rename the club Ostmark, the German name for the geographical region of its nation that was once Austria.

While many in Austria welcomed the Anschluss, large elements of Viennese society were less enamoured, including some of the football intelligentsia. There was little they could do to resist, however. Amid a host of much more important ramifications, there was also the matter of a World Cup only months away. 

Austria’s place in that tournament was gone, it’s football association withdrawn from FIFA, and its subjugation by Germany incorporating all footballing activity too. Germany had also qualified for the 1938 tournament but were a weaker side than the Austrians.  

It had been quickly accepted by the authorities that if Germany were to have any hope in the World Cup, they would need the technically superior and more advanced Austrian players. The Nazi Reichssportführer, Hans von Tschammer, even went as far as to say, “Viennese football art and the Viennese football school are unique in the world, and we would be fools to destroy it.”  

Given the Jewish influence in the development of Austrian football, this is quite some admission. But it makes clear that, from a footballing and political perspective, the need to include the Austrians was crucial. 

When it was proposed that a match should be staged between the German national team and what was Austria, there were two overriding reasons for this to happen. The first was of course symbolic. Primarily, it was to boost morale and promote a feelgood atmosphere in an activity and entertainment pastime which was popular in Vienna, and to acknowledge two nations coming together. 

Secondly, there was a practical element to it. By playing the German team against the best Austria could offer, it would serve as a trial for the coach, Sepp Herberger, to consider which Austrians to include in his final 22 for the World Cup. 

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Against this backdrop, the two sides were set to play each other in what has since become dubbed the “reconciliation” match, but at the time was referred to as the Anschlussspiel; a celebration of Austria’s return to the Reich. This meant a huge propaganda opportunity for the Germans and led to a multitude of myths surrounding the match and some of its principal characters. Most notable among then was Matthias Sindelar.

Sindelar had been the darling of the Wunderteam and its coffee house cheerleaders through Austrian football’s glory years of the early 1930s. By 1938, though, he was in his mid-30s and nearing the end of his illustrious career. And yet, as the star of Austrian football, he was a man the propagandists were keen to ensure took part in what they saw as a football celebration. 

Here is where one of the first myths around this game comes in. It is often noted that Sindelar knew he was vital to the match, and so used his position to demand that Austria play in red and white, the Austrian national colours, rather than the usual white and black kit they would generally wear, otherwise he would refuse to play.

This fits nicely with the post-war narrative surrounding this match but isn’t something that has been verified in any way. What the kit colour does certainly reveal, however, is the strong symbolism of this match. Both Germany and Austria traditionally wore white shirts and black shorts – it is only relatively recently that Austria have adopted red as their first-choice kit. 

In this match played in Vienna, now not part of Austria but a part of Germany, it was the German team which was the home side. It fits, therefore, that they would be the team wearing their home kit. Austria had worn red previously when it was required by a clash of kits, such as when visiting England earlier in the decade, and so it seems unlikely that the Sindelar’s insistence on Austria changing kits to wear red was the full truth of the matter.  

My own referring to the team as “Austria” throws up another symbolic issue around this match. Namely, just how to refer to the Austrian team when Austria no longer existed? Local media were unclear on the matter, referring to the Viennese national team, Ostmark (the initial name for the former country), or Gau-Österreich. In the stadium itself, the Nazi regime ensured the symbolism was front and centre; for them it was simply the German national team versus the German-Austrian team. The message was loud and clear: Austria was a part of Greater Germany now.

Of all the historical implications around the game, possibly the most commonly cited is the idea that the Austrian team, and Sindelar in particular, were deliberately missing chances in the first half. The suggestion is that it was a protest, a last stand against the new overlords, a mocking of their occupiers by a more talented set of players. It’s an enticing interpretation and may have had an element of truth. It is often thought that Austria had been instructed not to win, with a draw the most politically acceptable result. 

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What is clear is that the Austrians were clearly the better side and did miss several first-half chances. Given the political implications, it seems reasonable to think that a draw would have been an appropriate result. Sindelar shot narrowly wide on a number of occasions as did others, and the suggestion that this was mocking the Germans is a very evocative one. 

It was without doubt a clash of styles, with the sophisticated, advanced and technical approach of the Austrians going against the robust, physically strong Germans. Germany could be said to have been playing to type, espousing the Nazi ideology of physical strength, whereas the Austrians were the clear opposite to this. Whether there was an instruction to ensure a draw, or indeed to miss chances, is not known, but what certainly happened was that it was the technically superior Austrians who ultimately prevailed.

In the second half, the story goes that the Austrians’ patience eventually snapped and they scored two goals to win 2-0. The first goal came in the 62nd minute, when Franz Binder hit the post and the ball fell to Sindelar, who flicked it beyond the flailing goalkeeper into the corner of the net. He is reported to have danced in celebration in front of the watching Nazi officials, as if to show his defiance; the Nazis belittled by a man so slight and yet so talented. 

While his actions are clear in that he ran to the centre-circle to celebrate, and this was closer to the watching dignitaries, his celebration could be interpreted in any number of ways. But in the days when goal celebrations were limited, it does suggest an additional display of joy, over and above the norm.

Karl Sesta added an incredible second goal, scoring from close to halfway with an astonishing free-kick, beating the scrambling German goalkeeper. The Austrians had won 2-0 in what hindsight appears to show as a final act of sporting defiance. The huge crowd in Vienna’s Praterstadion also made their own feelings clear with a loud chant of “Österreich! Österreich!”, lamenting the nation now lost to them.

Within weeks, though, Austria had voted overwhelmingly to accept the Anschluss, although how much democratic store can be placed on that plebiscite is debatable. Professional football was soon outlawed in Austria, with all players’ contracts terminated immediately. 

German sport espoused the amateur ideal, with the Nazis no fans of professional sport in general and were certainly no great lovers of football. As a result, all of the Austrian players now needed to find another way to make a living – and in Sindelar’s case, he bought a café, renaming it Café Sindelar.  

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There was also the small matter of the World Cup to be played that summer. Sindelar had ruled himself out altogether, his official reason being that he was now too old and, in light of the end of professionalism, was retiring. He was 35 at this point, certainly old for a footballer in those days, but his old-age stance was a convenient way to exclude himself from a “national” team that he was vehemently opposed to. 

Naturally, it wasn’t a popular stance with the authorities. Sindelar would have been the focal point of the World Cup team, even given his age. Herberger was keen to include him, but all entreaties to Sindelar were met with a steadfast refusal.

Ultimately, nine of the final 22-man squad were Austrians, though it was far from a happy camp. Having complied with the Nazi political directive to include a number of Austrian players, it quickly led to a dressing room full of resentment and tension. 

The German side were faced with anti-fascist protests in France, and with such a strained squad it was little surprise that they were eliminated early, losing to Switzerland in the first round after a replay. Instead of providing a boost to the squad, the inclusion of the greater abilities of the Austrians had, in fact, hastened their departure from the tournament.  

The World Cup was just an epilogue, though, to the end of the Wunderteam which had its final moment harnessed for propaganda purposes amid the political turmoil of a nation now gone. It was a tragic end to what had been one of the great international sides in football history, though one that would go unfulfilled in terms of World Cup glory. 

As Austria and the Wunderteam had died, so too soon did Sindelar of carbon monoxide poisoning in his home at the start of 1939. Some accounts link suspicions around his death to his actions in the anschlussspiel, but the reality is likely more mundane – that a faulty heating system led to his poisoning. 

His death, like the reconciliation match, closed the book on Austria’s greatest era. It was a sad end to what had been a glorious age in Austrian football; the Wunderteam reaching its dramatic and sorry end alongside the nation they represented so wonderfully.

By Aidan Williams @yad_williams

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