Matthias Sindelar: The exquisite life and mysterious death of Austria’s ‘Papery Man’

On 23 January 1939, Gustav Hartman knocked on the door of his friend’s flat in Vienna. By almost any definition, at the time, Vienna was a city under occupation. Hitler’s Wehrmacht had swept across the border in March of the previous year in what was portrayed as the Anschluss. Previously independent Austria was swallowed up and redefined as merely part of the greater Germany. The situation in Vienna was anything but normal therefore, and for Hartman standing outside the flat, waiting for someone to respond to his insistent demands for attention, things were about to become even more sinister.

Despite his patience, Hartman could get no response. All was silent from inside. Fearing something was wrong, he forced an entry, and found the naked body of his friend, lying alongside that of the woman he shared the flat with. The man was already dead, but the woman, Camilla Castignola, survived for a while before finally passing away in hospital. The deceased man was Matthias Sindelar. Nicknamed the ‘Papery Man’ for his slight frame, Sindelar had been the iconic leader of the Austrian Wunderteam that had blazed a bright but all too brief flame across Europe. A somewhat infamous show business line suggests that it is a great career move to die young. On that bleak January day, in a grey city dominated by grey clouds and men in grey uniforms, Matthias Sindelar was 37 years old. It was hardly a great career move though.

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Johann Strauss’s Kaiser-Walzer was written in 1889 and offered by Austria-Hungary to the German Empire as a symbolic ‘toast of friendship’ by Emperor Franz Joseph I to celebrate the occasion of his visit to the German Emperor Wilhelm II. Half-a-century later, with the Germans now visiting Vienna in far less cordial terms, it’s an ironic footnote to the death of Austria’s most famous footballer that it occurred on the fiftieth anniversary of the piece, that could have been an oration to the most talented player to have represented Austria, rather than as a lament for his passing.

Matěj Šindelář was born in Kozlov, Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic – but at the time, a region within the Austro-Hungarian Empire – in February 1903. He would move to the Favoriten region of Vienna with his parents when two years old. It was an area of the city with a large Czech-speaking community and the immigrant family settled in the district. In a move to become more integrated into his new country, Matěj Šindelář eventually became Matthias Sindelar.

The young Matthias would begin his footballing education, as so many others did around Europe at that time, by kicking a ball in the streets along with his friends. When he was 15 however, things took on a more organised structure. His talent was spotted by Hertha Vienna and he was taken into their youth scheme. He would stay there until 1924, when he joined FK Austria Vienna. His new club were then known as Wiener Amateur-SV, but would change their name two years later. Across the following years, until that January day in 1939, he would make 703 league appearances for the club, scoring no less than 600 goals. With such a scoring record, it is of little surprise that both trophies and acclaim followed the frail-looking Sindelar, as iron filings to a magnet.

As well as a league title in 1926, the club would lift the Austrian Cup in 1925, 1926, 1933, 1935 and 1936, and the Mitropa Cup – a somewhat truncated early version of the European Cup – in both 1933 and 1936. The turf of the Franz Horr-Stadion was Matthias Sindelar’s stage and he bestrode it with the elegance, grace and skill of man born ahead of his time. His was not the rumbustious approach of the thud and blunder that was the muscular order of the day. Instead, he was possessed of an ability to control games with wit and imagination and to dominate opponents by outthinking and outplaying them.

It is of little surprise therefore that it took a theatre critic, Alfred Polgar, to effectively capture the entrancing play of Sindelar. “In a way he had brains in his legs,” Polgar suggested, focusing on his style and grace. “And many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running,” he continued, now emphasising the inherent timing that was a feature of his play. “Sindelar’s shot hit the back of the net like the perfect punchline, the ending that made it possible to understand and appreciate the perfect composition of the story, the crowning of which it represented.”

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In the previous century, Johann Strauss had made Vienna the capital of the Waltz and Sindelar unconsciously honoured that musical tradition by dancing his way through games with the same splendour and refinement of movement inspired by the younger Strauss. The early 1930s defined Vienna as the cultural capital of the world. Freud expounded his revolutionary theories of the mind and Carl Frühling’s music enchanted everyone. The coffee houses on the Stephansplatz were centres of discussion and debate, and on the football field, the country’s Wunderteam became legendary, with the captain of the team and their iconic leader was Matthias Sindelar.

Sindelar had first been capped by Hugo Meisl, the Austrian manager, in 1926 and would become a talisman of the team, illustrating the way it played and setting the standards of achievement. As a centre-forward he was the embodiment of Meisl’s methods.

Under his guidance, the Austrian national team were adherents to what had become known as the ‘Scottish School of Football’ based on rapid exchange of possession within the team to draw opposition players out of position and exploit the spaces created. It was a format of play that, many have argued, laid the foundations for the Totaal Voetbal of the great Dutch teams that would scorch the fields of European football, both in club competitions and internationally, with the bright orange flame of their brilliance. It was also ideally suited to the intelligence and ability of Sindelar, and he became a key element in, and driving force of, their unheralded success.

By the early 1930s Sindelar was the indispensable beating heart of the Wunderteam, who had gone 14 games unbeaten between April 1931 and December 1932. Journalist Willy Meisl described him. “He was truly symbolical of Austrian soccer at its peak period: no brawn but any amount of brain. Technique bordering on virtuosity, precision work and an inexhaustible repertoire of tricks and ideas. He had a boyish delight in soccer exploits, above all in unexpected twists and moves which were quickly understood and shared by his partners brought up on the same wavelength, but were baffling to an opposition only a fraction of a second slower.”

As the 1934 World Cup loomed on the horizon, although arguably slightly past their peak of excellence, many considered the Austrians to be the outstanding team of the era, and strong favourites to become world champions. Ahead of the competition, they had beaten Germany 5-0 and then 6-0, adding another six-goal haul against Switzerland and a highly impressive 8-2 win over Hungary. In 1932, they took the Central European International Cup, defeating Italy 4-2. The team was now on a crest with the likes of Josef Bican, Anton Schall, Josef Smistik and Walter Nausch as its stars, but the brightest of all in the Austrian firmament was Matthias Sindelar.

It’s sometimes argued that to be considered as the ’People’s Champions’, the team that doesn’t necessarily win the big prizes, but appear to many as the outstanding side in a tournament, you have to have a frailty, or perhaps even a curse of ill fortune. It happened to the Hungarians in 1954, when they lost out to West Germany in the World Cup Final played on a sodden pitch. It also happened to the Dutch in the 1974 World Cup Final, going a goal up, again against West Germany, and then getting lost as they admired themselves in the mirror and the hosts snaffled the trophy away from under their noses. A similar thing would happen to Sindelar and his teammates in 1934.

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A political storm that would later engulf Europe and the wider world was already brewing at the time when the World Cup arrived in Fascist Italy. Mussolini had moved mountains and men – importing stars from South America, the Oriundo programme to bolster the Azzurri team – to deliver a home victory. Nothing else would be tolerated. To achieve that though, somehow, the home team would need to get past the Austrians.

In the first round, The Wunderteam faced France. Jean Nicolas gave the French an early lead, but Sindelar equalised, sending the game into extra-time and the Austrians prevailed 3-2. Into the Quarterfinals, they were paired with Hungary and a 2-1 victory saw them into the final four. In the same round, Italy revealed the sorts of tactics they would deploy against Sindelar’s team. A ferocious game against Spain saw injuries outnumber goals and a repeat story in the replay when a weakened Spanish team lost out by the single goal of the match.

It set up the game that would, in reality, decide the World Cup. A ‘clash of styles’ hardly did justice to the different approach of the Austrians and their Italian hosts. If Sindelar’s team were the epee of a Musketeer, all dash and daring, Pozzo’s Azzurri were the crushing blow of the claymore, wielding iron with fire and fury. Artists against aesthetes and in such contests the fair often fall, and so it proved. Much as with the Hungarians in 1954 and indeed Poland who lost to West Germany in similar conditions in a 1974 Semi-Final, rain poured down on the Austrian parade.

The pitch at Milan’s San Siro was uneven, soaked and patched with sand. Any hope the Austrians had that their passing game would flourish on such a surface was the epitome of doomed optimism. Sure enough, Pozzo had identified Sindelar as the opposition’s main threat and deployed the Argentine born Luis Monti to ‘man mark’ him throughout the game. The muscular and athletic Monti delivered on the task.

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The only man to play in successive world Cup Finals for two different countries, having been imported to Italy as part of Mussolini’s Oriundo programme, Monti wrapped up the Papery Man and the game was done. For all that, it still took a goal of some brutality to settle the issue. Peter Platzer, playing in goal for the injured first choice Rudi Hiden, fell onto a low cross gathering the ball safely, only to be piled into by Meazza. As the ball inevitably rolled free, Enrique Guaita, another Oriundo, poked it home. The Swedish referee, Ivan Eklind saw nothing wrong and awarded the goal. The official was much criticised afterwards for favouring the home team, but the organisers rewarded him with the honour of refereeing the Final.

It is probably fair to say that by the time of that tournament, the Wunderteam and Sindelar were past their peak. He was into his early thirties and in those times, the sort of sport science that can extend a player’s career was not even a distant dream. It was the start of a sad decline. A silver medal in the 1936 Olympics was perhaps their swansong. In 1937, Meisl died; by the time the next World Cup rolled around, in 1938, the fortunes of the world, and particularly Austria, had been radically changed.

The Anschluss destroyed Austrian independence and, with it, the identity of their football team. The controlling authorities declared that a team representing the greater Germany, including the previously independent Austria would represent them in the upcoming French tournament. If the Wunderteam had already been in decline, this move killed it off.  There would however be a brief flicker of rebellion before the flame was doused.

A month or so after the Anschluss, it was announced that a game, a ‘Reconciliation Match’ would be played between the German and Ostmak – the new German description for Austria – teams, to mark the birth of the new ‘united’ German team. As with so many Austrians, Sindelar had little but resentment for the Nazis and had declared himself too old to play for the new team in the 1938 World Cup Finals. Given he would have been 35 years old by then, it was a reasonable stance, but one which was hardly received by the authorities with understanding. He was selected for the Reconciliation Match, however, and insisted on playing. It was a game that some have ventured as being the trigger for his untimely demise.

It is impossible to state with any certainty, but it is widely suggested that, for obvious political reasons, the Austrians had been advised not to score. Evidence of such instruction seems to receive support by reports of the numerous chances created by the far superior Austrian players, which were then squandered. Sindelar was particularly prevalent amongst these. Indeed, some have suggested that the creation of obvious chances and then not converting them was almost better than scoring as it not only exposed the inferiority of the German team, but spoke to anyone watching that they were merely being toyed with, as a cat with a mouse.

In the second-half however, whether it be for a Devil may care attitude, or just that to miss any more chances would have looked absurd, Sindelar eventually put the Austrians ahead. It is at this point when versions of history differ. Some suggest that he then danced a jig of joy in front of the box of Nazi dignitaries, pouring salt on any perceived insult and infuriating their German overlords. Others have suggested that there was nothing special about the celebration. In either case, merely scoring the goal may have been sufficient to incite ire.

It is from such events, plus his refusal to play for the new German team that suspicions have mounted as to the cause of Sindelar’s death. Later, he would own a café in Vienna, and his apparent refusal to allow Nazi propaganda to be posted in it, would pour fuel on the flames of such theories. So, at this time, we return to his death.

In an apparent unseemly race to close the case, which again only fans those speculative flames, the police rapidly and with an apparent disregard to consider carefully and fully any evidence surrounding the death of Sindelar and Camilla Castignola, declared that both had died of asphyxiation by carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty heater. It seemed to fit the circumstances but to many, was felt to be just ‘too tidy’ an explanation.

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Such actions were bound to provoke intrigue, and they did. Some considered that his defiance of the new regime had caused them to murder him. Two days after his death, a piece in the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung went so far as to assert that “everything points towards this great man having become the victim of murder through poisoning.” Others suggested that it was his abject disgust at the way his country had been overrun that caused him to kill himself with his football career ended.

In 2003, during a BBC documentary, a friend of Sindelar, Egon Ulbrich, claimed that local officials at the time had been bribed to record his death as an accident. The truth will probably never be known. Some time later though, it is reported that in excess of 20,000 mourners attended the Papery Man’s funeral, an occasion described by British-Austrian journalist Robin Stummer as “Vienna’s first, and last, rally against the Nazis.”

There is little doubt that Matthias Sindelar was an outstanding footballer, and starred for a national team that flourished as a series of stars aligned to throw their light on a darkness, ironically just ahead of the time when a more menacing gloom would descend upon their country. The theories swirling around about his death remain unresolved, and probably will do for ever more. Ironically, that uncertainty, that possibility of villainy damning a saintly figure merely add to the lustre of the legend. That old showbiz phrase about it being great for career move to die young is as cynical as it is dripping in infamy. For Matthias Sindelar, dying young was anything but a great career move. It did, however, build on the legend of the Papery Man, and ensures that his memory is preserved for many a long year.

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