Hakoah Vienna | @RichEvansWriter

The tragic demise of Austria’s most celebrated pre-war football club is a shocking reminder of the Nazi war machine’s ruthlessness. @RichEvansWriter tells the story:

Today, the internet provides immediate news access to all and sundry; debate surrounding hot footballing topics spirals with the velocity of an aggravated tornado. It’s a turbo-charged state of affairs exacerbated by the Twittersphere - musings are crammed into confined character counts, and no sooner have remarks been issued then they are superseded by amended versions. At times, it can be a fickle, superficial maelstrom where only those who shout loudest are heard.

Technology aside, it’s arguably a simple extension of yesteryear: in Britain, footballing wit has been bawled and barrelled across the smoke-fogged barrooms of boozers since time immemorial. Added to that, discourse concerning the beautiful game has stereotypically been the stuff of the tabloids; broad-brushed headlines have tended to trump minutiae and finer details. It might be partly down to this that there has always been an underlying suspicion of intellectualism within British football. Thankfully, the image of players conducting post-match interviews in monosyllabic grunts is changing, but the game still has a long way to go before it can openly be considered the preserve of the philosopher.

Was it ever thus? Well… on these shores, possibly yes. However, prior to the Second World War, the thriving, diverse Jewish culture of central Europe regarded football in reverential terms; it was an art form worthy of considered debate. Where football in Britain remained rooted in public houses, the beautiful game in Austria was argued over in the refined environs of coffeehouses. 

The epicentre of this fervently intellectual footballing debate, was Vienna, and the club that best encapsulated it was the proudly Jewish Hakoah Vienna. As Jonathan Wilson documents in Inverting the Pyramid, ‘…the Cafê Parsifal’ and ‘...the Cafê Holub’ would see a mix of ‘…players, supporters, directors and writers.’ Within such locations, football took on an enormous significance: it was regarded almost as a microcosm of life itself - a theoretical discipline that manifested itself physically upon the pitch. The brief flowering of this culture, though, was cut horrendously short by the advent of global hostilities in the late 1930s.

Viennese coffee houses were the location for football debate in the 1920s/30s

Conservative estimates calculate that, by 1945, two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population had been massacred. The sheer scale of fatalities is so immense that it is impossible for the rational mind to process. After the Holocaust, an entire way of life and its associated culture had been all but eradicated. This piece will not attempt to take on so broad a topic, but will instead focus on Hakoah Vienna – the club whose untimely demise serves as perhaps the most tragic of laments for football in wartime.

Founded as a sports club in 1909 by Fritz Löhner and Ignaz Herman Körner, Hakoah Vienna’s ideology was underpinned by the notion of ‘Muscular Judaism.’ This ideology – named by Max Nordau at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898 – was intended to empower the Jewish diaspora, and to catalyse a sense of strength and physicality as a counterpoint to depictions of Jewish people being weak; the word ‘Hakoah’ means strength in Hebrew. 

The club’s affiliation was clearly evidenced by the large Star of David that featured on their jerseys. To spread their message, Hakoah’s football team (in tandem with its swimming and fencing outfits) undertook global tours to promote this new brand of Zionism, winning massive support across Europe and the United States. With the era’s rising tide of anti-Semitism, they faced opposition, but countered this by employing the club’s wrestling team to act as security guards.

Béla Guttmann (a TFHB favourite) played for Hakoah

In purely footballing terms, the club’s successes were quite astonishing: the team won the inaugural Austrian championship in 1925; in 1923, they beat West Ham United 5-1, becoming the first continental team to defeat an English team on English soil in the process; in their American tour of 1927, they defeated US champions Bethlehem Steel Football Club. The American Soccer League was – at this juncture – big news. Indeed, its popularity closely rivalled that of the NFL, and Hakoah’s match at New York’s Polo Grounds attracted nearly 50,000 spectators. Hungarian national Béla Guttmann was the club’s most notable player and he returned to manage them later in the 1930s.

However, the success did not last. Witnessing the relative lack of conspicuous anti-Semitism in the USA, many of the team’s notable players chose to remain there. Added to this, were a number of émigrés who decamped to Mandate Palestine, forming Hakoah Tel Aviv in the process. Then, of course, came the rise of Hitler. Three days after the Austrian Anschluss, the club was shut down, and its assets seized. At least seven of its players were victims of the Holocaust – among them Max Scheuer, Josef Kolisch, Ali Schönfeld, Oskar Grasgrün, Ernst Horowitz, and brothers Erwin and Oskar Pollak.

After the Liquidation Commissioner ordered Hakoah to declare and transfer all its assets, it was banned outright. This was an action from which there was to be no return.

But does the story end there?

Guttmann later found great success with Benfica

Yes, and no. Miraculously, Béla Guttmann escaped the fate of his father, sister, nephew and other extended family members who were all murdered in the Holocaust. At one point, he hid in an attic on the outskirts of Budapest and, later, he escaped from a forced labour camp to avoid deportation to the Reich. His mark, of course, is indelibly stamped upon global football: successive European Cups with Benfica in 1961 and 1962; managing at international level, and perfecting the 4-2-4 formation while managing in Brazil. The sheer number of international clubs he managed means the scope of his influence has been enormous.

Guttman’s tactical nous and innovation help to illustrate how football in this era was transitioning from a brutal, physical contest to a sport informed by beauty and fluidity. Indeed, the seeds sown long ago in Vienna have since blossomed into the finest displays of the modern game, and much of this can arguably be traced back to Hakoa. Without the club, the world would quite possibly have been deprived the mercurial Brazilian stylings of Pele and Garrincha and, maybe, Total Football in all its different forms. The sport may well have remained a blunt instrument without input from pre-war Vienna’s coffeehouse culture.

The club’s influence, then, is irrefutable. However, unlike the Jewish artists, philosophers and writers destroyed by the Holocaust, Jewish influence upon football has been all but forgotten. The proliferation of anti-racist campaigns in football is, of course, very welcome. There is, though, little focus from FIFA or UEFA on the damage inflicted by anti-Semitism upon the world’s most popular sport. Given the significance of Hakoa Vienna’s role in the creation of the modern game, the fact that its descendant – FC Maccabi Wien - currently labour unheralded in the Austrian minor leagues, seems wholly wrong. That such a rich vein of footballing history should effectively disappear is a gross injustice and serves as probably one of the most disturbing instances of sport falling victim to war.

New York Hakoah (founded 2009) now pay tribute to Hakoah Vienna

By Rich Evans, written for @TFHB.

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


Anonymous said…
A friend of mine, the late Eric Offner, was a young Jewish boy who was forced by the Nazis to flee Vienna, first to Britain, then to America (New York). His favorite team as a lad in Vienna was Hakoah. He would've loved this article - thank you for this.

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