Matthias Sindelar: The Paper Man | @RichEvansWriter

A member of the 1930s Wunderteam who died in mysterious circumstances shortly after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, @RichEvansWriter tells the story:

When considering footballers in wartime, it is important to remember those who, though not directly involved, have been affected by the spectre of conflict. Matthias Sindelar – The Paper Man – arguably falls into this category; though global war had not yet been declared when he passed away, debate still rages as to whether he was an early victim of the Nazi war machine.  

Matthias Sindelar - an Austrian great

More than any other player of his generation, he embodies the embryonic idea of Total Football. The system – as masterminded by Hugo Meisl and Jimmy Hogan - was a victory of brains over brawn; beauty over brutality. It is perhaps the attractiveness of the playing style he helped to instigate which has made the poignancy of his loss endure. 

As an aside, Ernst Happel - who coached in the Netherlands in the late 1960s and early 1970s and went on to manage the national team to second place in the 1978 World Cup - was heavily influenced by the Austrian team of his youth. His later managerial career therefore serves as a direct link between the Viennese footballing ideology and the orange-shirted revolution that followed 30 years later, and so places the Wunderteam firmly on the Total Football family tree. Given the influence Dutch football from this era has had upon the modern game, the significance of Sindelar and his teammates’ contribution becomes even clearer. 

Born in 1903, Sindelar captained the Austrian national team in the 1934 World Cup. His shadow looms large over Austrian football; he was celebrated for his creative abilities and was voted as the greatest Austrian sportsman of the 20th century. In addition, Sindelar was ranked as Austria's best footballer of the twentieth century, and as the world's 22nd best by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics. 

Sindelar has been called the 'Mozart' of Austrian football

Sindelar was often referred to as the Mozart of football - for his skill - or as The Paper Man - on account of his slight build. Club-wise, he represented Austria Vienna from 1924 to 1938 and, as a gifted centre forward, scored a remarkable 600 goals in 703 appearances. During his tenure, the team won the Austrian Cup 5 times; they won the league title in 1926 and were victorious in the Mitropa Cup in 1933 and 1936. With Sindelar at the helm, the team developed a fluid style that was massively influential on the playing approach employed by the national team. 

Sindelar’s unpredictability, though a key ingredient of his on-filed genius, was at odds with the strict tactical approach demanded by Meisl; he was dropped for what the coach interpreted as indiscipline. However, football in Austria between the wars was synonymous with the intellectual Viennese coffeehouse culture; influential commentators within this milieu vociferously called for his reinstatement. As a result of their continued pressure, Sindelar was reinstated. 

In the Thirties, the Wunderteam truly shone. Victory in the 1932 Central European International Cup was followed by an appearance as runners up in the 1935 edition of the same. More than anything else, though, the Wunderteam’s reputation was made by their performance in the 1934 World Cup. Though they were defeated 1-0 by hosts Italy in the semi-final and went on to lose the third-place playoff 3-2 to Germany, the team won many admirers, with their easy-on-the-eye passing game being nicknamed ‘The Viennese Whirpool.’  

It is as much for events after this golden period, though, for which Sindelar is remembered. Meisl died in 1937 which meant that the Austrian team – their sporting reputation secure - had lost a little of their sparkle. Their political and historical legacy, though, comes down to one match: Austria versus Germany in 1938. This was notable, in the first instance, for being the final match played by an independent Austria. Only weeks before, following the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria, Nazi Germany ordered the dissolution of the Austrian team. Even though they had qualified for the 1938 World Cup, they were forced to withdraw; its players were to be appropriated into a common team with Germany. 

After the Anschluss, Hitler disolved the Austrian national team

Naturally, this lent the fixture (played at Vienna’s Prater Stadium), increased resonance. Though it was dubbed the Anschlussspiel and was billed as a match to celebrate what the Nazis were presenting as a reunification of sorts, Austrian supporters viewed it far more as a platform from which to launch an act of footballing defiance against their new masters. 

Upon Sindelar’s insistence, Austria ditched their traditional white and black kit in favour of a red and white strip that reflected the national flag’s colours. In a game that they dominated throughout, Das Team’s forward line missed several golden opportunities, which led certain spectators to wonder whether they were opting for a diplomatic approach after all. However, in the game’s closing stages, Sindelar and Karl Sesta both scored to make the final score line 2-0 to the home team. While footage has not come to light, The Paper Man is rumoured to have dramatically celebrated his goal directly in front of those senior Nazi dignitaries that were present. Given the importance afforded to sporting prowess by the Reich (one need only look to the Berlin Olympics for the way they craved Aryan dominance in all events), such a perceived slur would not have gone unnoticed.  

It is this goal celebration which gives credence to some interpretations of events that followed. At 35, Sindelar cited old age as his reason for refusing to represent the newly minted unified German team. However, it was widely assumed this was merely an excuse to avoid him having to declare his more politicised motivations. His death has always been suspicious and there are still those who insist that Sindelar’s demise was organised by the Gestapo in retribution for the snubbing of his new overlords. The Nazi secret police definitely kept a file on him, and his opposition to the Anschluss was well known.  

Sindelar's death has been linked to his opposition to the Nazis

On 23rd January 1939, Sindelar and his girlfriend Camilla Castagnola, were found dead at the apartment they shared. The official cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning, but there has been much debate about the validity of these claims. On the one hand, it could have been a simple case of accidental death: there had been reports of a defective chimney in the weeks leading up to the incident. 

On the other hand, there are those who have suggested it was suicide: Sindelar’s position – as a noted opponent of the Reich – was becoming increasingly untenable and, realistically, would only get worse. However, that he was clearly a person of interest to the Nazis has added fuel to claims that it may well actually have been a case of murder. In the years since, the details of the event have been further complicated – in a documentary from the early 2002s, Sindelar’s friend Egon Ulbrich, claimed a public official had been bribed to record the cause of death as accidental. The reason given for this was that that it would facilitate a state funeral (Nazi rules prevented murder or suicide victims being given a grave of honour) but it further muddies the waters of the case.  

Ever since, Sindelar – buried in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof – has been considered a martyr by many. Friedrich Torberg later dedicated a poem Auf den Tod eines Fußballspielers (On the Death of a Footballer) to his enduring legend. If his death was attributable to suspicious circumstances, then Sindelar surely classes as an early victim of the conflict which was soon to envelop the globe.  


By Rich Evans, written for @TFHB.

©The Football History Boys, 2022
(All pictures borrowed and not owned in any form by TFHB)

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