BY TONY TOPPING
The long and illustrious history of football is now and again graced with men of pure genius. Footballing giants whose exploits are carried like a torch by fans from around the world; men who wrote their name in gold, footballers who live on in the memories of countless fans long after they have left behind this mortal coil.
One man who deserves his place amongst this celebrated band of players is a virtual unknown outside his own country yet his story is one of the most compelling.
A story that deserves to be heard, the tale of a great footballer and a great man, of loyalty, triumph and sadly, tragedy.
Matthias Sindelar was his name and this is his story.
Sindelar was born on the 10th of February 1903 in a village called Koslov in the country of Moravia (now known as the Czech Republic). His father, a stonemason, uprooted his family to look for a better life and they moved to Vienna, Austria.
Sindelar and his three sisters grew up in the neighbourhood known as the “favoriten” an industrial area full of factories and brickworks, not exactly the nicest place to live. The Sindelar family were devout Catholics but the majority of people living in this rundown area were Jewish. Little Matthias made many Jewish friends, playing games in the shadows of the smoking chimneys from the factories.
The one game that dominated playtime was football, but like many other poor children around the globe, they played with a ball made from a bundle of rags – a real leather football was out of the question for working class kids.
Little Matthias was a natural and baffled his often older opponents with his close dribbling skills. In 1917 tragedy struck the family when Sindelar’s father was killed fighting at the front. Matthias – the only man in the house – took on his father’s role and at the age of 14 enrolled as an apprentice mechanic.
His football skills were, by now, attracting attention and the following year he signed for FK Austria. The Austrian team were known for their aggressive style of play and Sindelar, who was a more cultured player, found it hard to adapt at first.
In fact, his career nearly ended as soon as it started when he suffered a bad knee injury. A well-known surgeon of that time, Dr Hans Spitzy, was called on to cure the problem and the operation was a complete success. The incident worried Sindelar though and for the majority of his playing days he wore a protective bandage around his knee. His nickname was the “Man of Paper” – there are two explanations for this. One road of thought suggests that Sindelar was of very slight build, he was tall and angular with a narrow face and high cheekbones hence his man of paper title, but he was a strong man despite his outward appearance. The other reason for his name was given by the English press who stated “Only the Man of Paper could have slipped through the tightest of defences”.
One of the few surviving players to have faced him, 85-year-old Paul Pongratz, said “He was technically the best player of all. He would dance lightly around players avoiding confrontation. He could read the game like a chess master and it was him who created the tactical game they called the “Vienna school of football”.
In 1927, Hugo Meisl – the legendary Austrian football coach – put forward an idea for a football competition involving club teams from Austria, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The competition was named the Mitropa Cup and it was the forerunner of today’s Champions League. Sindelar led his FK Austria team to two victories in the competition. Matthias was now an international player and the Austrian side of the 1930’s became known as the “Wunderteam”; the man of paper was the star.
The Wunderteam had a great run of success starting in May 1931 with a 5-0 mauling of Scotland and ending in April 1933. They played 16 games, winning 12, drawing two with only two defeats; they scored 63 goals and conceded 20. Sindelar scored 27 of them and made the majority of the others.
One of the team’s defeats was a narrow 4-3 loss to England in 1932 when the Austrians received widespread acclaim for their style of play. Sindelar scored a goal in the game, which was described in the English press as the “Goal of the Century”.
The Belgian referee from the game, John Langenus, described it thus, “Zischek scored twice but Sindelar’s goal was a masterpiece, which no one ever again accomplished against such opponents as the English. Sindelar started out from the halfway line and simply bypassed anyone who opposed him and doubled back to put the ball into the net”. Other reports add that he fooled two defenders with a step over before scoring.
In the same year they also defeated Italy 2-1 with two Sindelar strikes, one of the goals being especially memorable. From a corner, the ball was headed on by one of his teammates to Sindelar who cleverly headed the ball over his Italian marker, ran around him and headed it again past the keeper to send the crowd wild.
Some of the other games played in that magical spell included wins over Germany 6-0 & 5-0, Switzerland 8-1, Hungary 8-2, Belgium 6-1 and 4-0 against France.
Sindelar’s magic was at its best in the 8-2 rout of Hungary; he scored 3 goals in the game and made the other five (Schall 4, Gschweidl 1).
The team was managed by a British coach, Jimmy Hogan, and trained by a German Harry Gotz.
British football clubs were falling over themselves to buy the talented Man of Paper but he was happy to stay in Austria.
By the time the World Cup came around in 1934, the country was in a terrible recession. Estimates put the unemployment figures at 38.5% which equated to 770,000 people. Support at the Austrian clubs dwindled and they struggled to survive.
The World Cup held in Mussolini’s Italy could not have come at worse time for Sindelar and his team-mates. Money was so short that the team had to travel to the World cup without its coach and trainer. It seems incredible today but they couldn’t afford to take them, also the Austrian league season had only just ended and the players were not in the best condition, being physically and mentally drained.
Despite all these problems the team managed to make it to the semi-final were they faced the hosts Italy. The Italians were desperate to win on their home soil and meant to win at all cost; this led to them intimidating the more skilful Austrians with a series of despicable challenges. As the main danger, Sindelar was picked out for the worst treatment – once being kicked when he lay on the ground injured and he had to leave the field of play unable to continue.
In 1938, Austria was occupied by Germany and Sindelar’s world was turned upside down. He hated the fact that the streets of Vienna were now filled with German soldiers and many of his Jewish friends had to flee the country for their lives. Some of those going into hiding were fellow players from his beloved club FK Austria whom the Germans identified as the “Jews’” club. The Nazis also disliked Sindelar because of his huge popularity with the Austrian people. They closed down football clubs such as the Jewish team “Hakoah” and the Czech team “Slovan”. The Germans took over the running of FK Austria and renamed it “Ostmark” but after vehement demonstrations, they were forced to revert to its original name.
Any officials at the club that were Jewish were removed and the players were ordered to ignore them at all times. One day in the crowded marketplace, Sindelar spotted the former Chairman Dr. Michl Schwartz across the street, at the top of his voice he shouted, “The new club fuhrer has forbidden us to say hello to you but I’m always going to say hello to you sir” – an open show of defiance that took a lot of bravery.
Later that year the Germans arranged a football friendly between Sindelar’s club team and a Germany side. Sindelar insisted on his club side being allowed to wear the Austrian national team strip and 60,000 spectators turned up for the game.
Ex-player and avid spectator at the game Paul Pongratz remembered the game well, “There were rumours in the crowd that the Germans had ordered the Austrians not to score” recalled Pongratz. “Sindelar missed chances on purpose time and time again almost at the goal. The Germans were humiliated until in the second half he finally scored with a long-range shot. The crowd went wild”. Germany finally lost 2-0.
Sindelar’s performance did not go unnoticed by the Nazi hierarchy and his performance that day probably sealed his fate. He also refused to play for the “Greater Germany” football side in the 1938 World Cup even though several of his Austrian counterparts were pressed into playing.
Matthias Sindelar played his last game of football on Boxing Day 1938 when he played for FK Austria against Hertha BSC in Berlin. Typical of the man he scored as well, he was 35 years old. A month later he was dead.
He had bought a coffee shop a year earlier and had paid the Jewish owner his full asking price, which was typical of the man, Jewish people were being forced out of their homes and people less scrupulous than Sindelar were taking full advantage. It was in his flat above this coffee house that Sindelar’s life ended.
Matthias Sindelar and his girlfriend Camilla Castagnola went to bed on the evening of January 22nd 1939; the next morning Sindelar was dead and his girlfriend in a coma that she never came out of. The cause of death was officially put down to carbon monoxide poisoning; a faulty chimney was thought to have caused the fatal fumes to escape. Many people were not convinced by this theory, however, and suspected a cover up by the Nazis.
Barely 48 hours after his death the Austrian paper Kronen Zeitung reported that “everything points towards this great man having become the victim of murder through poisoning”. The official police reports on the case mysteriously disappeared soon after, some say they were destroyed by the Nazis.
Sindelar was buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, 20,000 people attended his funeral. Every year on the anniversary of his death current Austrian players and officials along with former players gather at his graveside to pay their respects to Austria’s greatest ever player.
CHECK OUT TONY’S BLOG HERE https://topping911.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/man-of-paper/