Matthias Sindelar: The footballer who defied Nazi Germany

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
October 10, 2018
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On the 3rd of April 1938, Matthias Sindelar scored the goal that might have ended his life. A few weeks earlier, Germany had annexed Austria, the country of Sindelar’s birth. At the Prater Stadium in Vienna, the two countries played a friendly, billed as a “reunification derby”.

Austria were not meant to win. The game was supposed to finish in a cordial 0-0 draw, but Sindelar had other ideas. In the 70th minute, having already missed a number of chances, he fired a rebound into the net. Then he celebrated, dancing with a grin on his face, in front of a box of Nazi dignitaries. Nine months later, he was dead. Born in 1903 in Koslov, Austria-Hungary, Sindelar’s early life was difficult. His father was a blacksmith, and moved to Vienna in search of work when Sindelar was young. In the working class district of Favoriten, he learned to play football on the streets, kicking around a ball made of rags.

It was clear that he was uniquely talented and at the age of 15 he was taken on by local club Hertha Vienna. A year earlier, his father had been killed fighting in Italy during the First World War. It only made Sindelar more focused. After a successful few years with Hertha, he joined FK Austria Vienna in 1924. Despite a persistent knee injury, it didn’t take long for Sindelar to make his mark on the club. Fans quickly warmed to his inimitable style of play, and he was the talk of the intellectual football theorists in Vienna’s coffee houses. They admired his ethereal way of moving, his intelligence on the ball. He was unlike anything they had seen before.

“He would play football as a grandmaster plays chess,” wrote theatre critic Alfred Polgar of Sindelar. “In a way he had brains in his legs and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running. His shot hits 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.”

In Sindelar’s first three seasons with the club, FK Austria won the domestic cup three times and lifted a league title. And his form at club level soon translated onto the international stage. He made his debut for Austria’s national team in 1926, scoring in a 2-1 win over Czechoslovakia, and then hit two more goals in a 7-1 thrashing of Switzerland.

Austria were becoming a force, and Sindelar was at the centre of it, the focal point of Hugo Meisl’s exhilarating ‘Wunderteam’. Throughout the 1930s, few could cope with them. Sindelar was feared by opposition defenders and admired by Austrians. In Vienna, he was a celebrity, appearing in adverts for milk and watches. His performances for club and country meant he was a wanted man: Manchester United were one of a number of clubs said to have offered a huge fee for his services. But Sindelar wanted to stay in Austria.

So he did, living in a modest apartment with his mother and playing with remarkable consistency for FK Austria. By the end of the decade, though, football in Europe had been interrupted by the manoeuvrings of the power hungry Nazis.

When the tanks rolled into Austria, and Hitler commanded deference, Sindelar chose to resist. He was a socialist, and many of his friends at FK Austria were Jewish. The Nazis quickly banned all Jews from football, which left FK Austria without half of their squad. Their president, Michl Schwarz, was Jewish, too. “We have been forbidden to talk to you, but I will always talk to you,” Sindelar told him. It is no surprise, then, that having scored against Germany in April 1938, Sindelar chose to mock the Nazis in attendance. But he and his teammates had been warned against scoring by Nazi propagandists. When he did, they were not impressed.

Begrudgingly, the DFB, Germany’s football federation, attempted to entice Sindelar into changing his international allegiances. Even the humbled Nazis acknowledged his brilliance. If he had been willing to play for Germany, they might have forgiven him his disrespect. But he always refused, ignoring the requests or complaining of injuries.

On the morning of the 23rd January 1939, Sindelar’s friend Gustav Hartmann burst into a flat above a coffee house he had purchased a year earlier. There he found Sindelar, dead, lying alongside his unconscious girlfriend, Camilla Castignola. She later died, too, in hospital. The police marked the deaths down as carbon monoxide poisoning, the result of a faulty heater. But the public prosecutor was unconvinced, and had yet to reach a conclusion when the Nazis forced him to close the case six months later.

The case of Sindelar’s death was never solved. Many claimed he was killed by the Nazis, angered by his refusal to submit to their demands. Others claimed it was suicide, that Sindelar had fallen into a depression after his beloved Vienna fell to the tyranny of Hitler. Sindelar’s death, inevitably, led to suspicion and conspiracy theories. But none of them have been proved conclusively true. Even so, he is remembered as the man who defied the Nazis, who refused to succumb to their oppressive rule. He is remembered as a representative of the romantic, coffee house football that prevailed in Austria before the inexorable spread of fascism.

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