Football has a long timeline; so long that many teams and players are forgotten. The greatest teams live on, to an extent, but as time marches on they will be forgotten, too, as sad as it is to imagine. For how much longer will the world remember the Uruguayans of the 1920s and ’30s or Hungary of the 1950s? It seems as though one side from the pantheon of the greatest teams has already been forgotten – the Austrian side of the 1930s: otherwise known as the Wunderteam.
The Wunderteam were the product of the creative, elegant football emerging from Central Europe at this time. Spearheaded and captained by the creative but slight Matthias Sindelar, known as Der Papierene (“The Paper Man”) who played in what we would now probably call the “false nine” position, dropping off the front into pockets of space to use his creativity. He helped supply the prolific Josef Bican with goals (Bican netted 56 times in 57 caps for Austria) and was very much the man who made Austria play. It’s apt that his other nickname was “the Mozart of football”.
But for all that the Wunderteam were at the vanguard of a new football, their manager, Hugo Meisl, was still in opposition. He was naturally a consecrative manager and resistant the changes sweeping through the European game. It wasn’t until 1931 – some six years after his international debut – that Meisl installed the brittle but brilliant Sindelar as a fixture in his team and allowed them to really play. The first warning for the rest of the world of the Wunderteam‘s brilliance came in a friendly versus Scotland in Vienna in that same year. The respected Scots were hammered 5-0 by a Sindelar-inspired Austrian side, all skill, quick passing and whirling movement. Over a year later they were narrowly beaten by England 4-3 with Sindelar again at the heart of all their good play. In that same year they won their only trophy, beating Italy to win the Central European International Cup (a precursor to the European Championships we know today).
Italy would get their revenge by knocking the Wunderteam out at the semi final stage of the 1934 World Cup, a tournament which Meisl’s side entered as one of the favourites. Despite playing some of the best football at the tournament, they could not win the trophy (a theme continued by other great footballing sides: Hungary in ’54, Holland in ’74, Brazil in ’82). Austria eventually finished in 4th place (losing the 3rd/4th place playoff to neighbours Germany) and while the World Cup campaign was by no means a disaster, it did not bring the glory that many had expected. However, the key players had years left in them: Sindelar was 30, Nausch 27, the free-scoring Bican just 21. It seemed as though this team could dominate Europe for years to come…but then, almost as suddenly as everything had slotted into place for the Wunderteam, it all fell apart.
The manager Hugo Meisl died of a heart attack in 1937, but the side still qualified for the 1938 World Cup to be held in France. But as if the death of their manager was not enough, 1938 saw the Anschuss to Nazi Germany, the annexation of the country and its footballers with it. Austria withdrew from the ’38 World Cup and saw its team amalgamated into the existing German team. Several players were capped for the new Germany team – which underachieved – while two of the Wunderteam‘s stars did not play. Josef Bican, who was playing in Czechoslovakia at the time for Slavia Prague, was granted Czech citizenship and played 18 times for his new nation (scoring 19 times, naturally). Sindelar, meanwhile, the darling of the Wunderteam, refused to leave his homeland but at the same time refused to play for Germany, frequently citing injury as an excuse. His story ended in tragedy as he was found dead in his Vienna apartment January of 1939, aged just 35. The official verdict recorded carbon monoxide poisoning as the cause of death, but there were rumours that his death was part of a Nazi plot or a suicide, rather than an accident. We’ll probably never learn the truth for certain, but what we do know is that it was a terribly sad end to the story of Austria’s greatest ever footballer, matching the terribly sad end for its greatest ever team.