The Striker Who Snubbed Hitler: As Austria Co-Hosts Euro 2008, Robin Stummer Reports on the Mystery of the Great Footballer Matthias Sindelar, the Pele of the Interwar Years-An Anti-Nazi Hero the State Seems Reluctant to Remember

New Statesman (1996), June 16, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Striker Who Snubbed Hitler: As Austria Co-Hosts Euro 2008, Robin Stummer Reports on the Mystery of the Great Footballer Matthias Sindelar, the Pele of the Interwar Years-An Anti-Nazi Hero the State Seems Reluctant to Remember


A few seconds of grainy newsreel, a handful of fragile press cuttings, a street name, a grave. Such is the meagre legacy of Matthias Sindelar- one of the world's greatest soccer players, the Pele of the interwar years, a sporting genius who not only took the game into the modern era, but snubbed Hitler en route. Many believe that the Austrian centre-forward's contempt for the Nazis cost him his life. But has Austria snubbed Sindelar?

In a small country not overflowing with world-class sports heroes or, for that matter, high-profile anti-fascist martyrs, the absence of Sindelar from Austria's official past and present is strange. No statues, no stadium name, no posters. No football academy bears his name; there has been no big biopic, no exhibition, no plaques, no new investigation into his suspicious death. A recent poll in Austria confirmed Sindelar as the nation's all-time greatest sports star, yet soccer fans in the country for Euro 2008 will struggle to find any sign of him.

It's an omission that even some Austrians, long used to institutionalised strangeness, find baffling. "It is an amazing lack-a puzzle, but also a real shame," says the Austrian soccer historian Dr Erich Krenslehner. "For a great star like Sindelar, not to have a memorial of some sort is very unusual, a mystery." So why is a nation so adept at the chocolate-box glorification of Mozart, Strauss and Haydn reluctant to embrace the memory of its finest sportsman?

A bronze football tops the marble slab over Sindelar's grave at Vienna's Zentralfriedhof cemetery. His gentle face, cast in bronze-high forehead, hair receding, the metal bright green with verdigris--stares out from the headstone above the dates 1903-1939. He is in vintage kit-floppy collar, lace-up neck. On the green metal face, seven decades of rain have left dark streaks from the hairline down to the neck that look like ghostly post-match sweaThere are no flowers.

Austria, Euro 2008 co-hosts, start this year's competition ranked 88th in the world, yet for the best part of a decade-and just about within living memory-Austria was, with England, the most feared side in world soccer, and it could boast the world's leading player.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Matthias Sindelar was an almost freakishly talented footballer who waltzed around opponents with ease. Above all, he possessed what the pundits called "wit"; he was, said one, a man who played soccer "as a grandmaster played chess".

The sports writers christened Sindelar "derPapierne"--"the paper man" who fluttered around the pitch. To the ethnic Czech, Hungarian and Polish factory workers and the cafe-society dilettantes and bourgeoisie, many of them Jewish, who flocked to see him play for his club, FK Austria Wien, however, he was their "Sindi". And Sindi, quite simply, was playing soccer like no one else in the world.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Sindelar was "new" Viennese. His parents were Catholics from Moravia, now in the Czech Republic. He spoke in the slurred Viennese dialect, and grew up in the drab, poor suburb of Favoriten, a bastion of the left. "In his speech, in his manner, he was an ordinary Viennese person," recalls Franz Schwarz, son of the 1920s and 1930s Austrian team president and now, in his nineties, one of the few people alive to have met Sindelar. "But he was something very special in his talent, really exceptional."

Starting in spring 1931 with a 5-o demolition of Scotland, at the time one of Europe's most revered teams, the red-and-whites would be unbeaten for the next 19 internationals, pushing 11 goals past Germany's goalkeeper in just two matches, with none conceded. All of Europe's top teams were toppled. In December 1932 the side, now dubbed the Wunderteam, was ready to take on the world's most potent force: England.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A crowd of 60,000 packed Stamford Bridge to see the Austrians play England, while an even bigger throng crammed into Vienna's Helden-platz for a radio commentary. …

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