Book Review: Football, The Other Viennese School

Inverting the Pyramid, by Jonathan Wilson; European Heroes: Myth, Identity, Sport, edited by Richard Holt, J.A.Mangan, and Pierre Lanfranchi

TVR Books | Samuel Goff | February 2012

Paul Meissner’s famous 1948 portrait of the Wunderteam, which hangs in the Wien Museum | Source:

How coffeehouse culture and football combined to create a "Golden Age" of Austrian sports between the wars

The following is based on two excellent books on the history and origins of Viennese football: 

Inverting the Pyramid, by Jonathan Wilson and European Heroes: Myth, Identity, Sport  Richard Holt, J.A.Mangan, Pierre Lanfranchi, eds

The passion that enlivens derbies between Austria and Rapid Wien cannot mask that reality: that neither is a powerhouse of world football. The Austrian Bundesliga often ranks below the Turkish and Danish leagues in European comparisons. And yet, as in so many fields, Austria and Vienna were once on top of the world, the hub of a footballing revolution that reflected the city’s fascinating and tragic inter-war culture.

The 1920s were Austria’s football heyday. A two-tier professional league founded in 1924 launched a decade of rapid growth; even in the first year, the Neues Wiener Journal reported, forty to fifty thousand people would turn up on bright Sunday afternoons in the capital to cheer for their side. Elsewhere in Central Europe, it was a game for the upper classes, introduced by British aristocrats, but in Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, the game managed to transcend class boundaries and was soon picked up by both the burgeoning urban proletariat, and the intellectuals who populated the coffeehouses of these grand old Central European capitals.

Alongside the games of chess, newspapers, and political intrigue, the coffeehouses grew into hotbeds of football chatter. Specific establishments became the second homes to supporters of Vienna’s most popular teams: Austria Wien, a favourite of the city’s Jewish bourgeoisie, had their stronghold at the Café Parsifal (now Café Hummel) in the 8th District; Rapid Wien, favoured in the industrial suburbs, dominated conversation in the Café Holub. Traversing these club loyalties was the crowd at the venerable Ring Café. Here, between the wars, one could find what the Welt am Montag described as "a kind of revolutionary parliament of the friends and fanatics of football".

Austria and Rapid each had their own star players, whose popularities reflected the divisions in the modernising city. Rapid’s hero was Josef Uridil, a hulking centre-forward hailing from the proletarian suburbs, who seemed to match the team’s sense of muscular, working-class identity. In 1922, he became the subject of a popular music-hall tune by Hermann Leopoldi, "Heute spielt der Uridil". By 1924, his celebrity was such that he appeared in a film, Pflicht und Ehre, as himself, and took up a position as a music-hall compère.

His counterpart at Austria was the singularly gifted striker, Matthias Sindelar. Der Papierene, or "Paperman", as he was known, was slight and wan, yet dazzled on the football field. The bourgeois fans of Austria Wien adored Sindelar, whom they saw as an embodiment of the cerebral atmosphere of the coffeehouse. "He had brains in his legs," wrote Alfred Polger, the theatre critic who later penned Sindelar’s obituary. Sindelar was renowned for tricking the opposition defence, for spotting passes that no one else could see, and for scoring delightful goals like "punch lines". With their media presence, commercial endorsements, and urban appeal, Uridil and Sindelar were, along with the stars of early cinema and the music-hall, in many ways the first truly modern celebrities in Austria. What’s more, despite their opposing fan bases, both Uridil and Sindelar were of Moravian immigrant stock, their success reflecting Vienna’s history of diverse cultural influence.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this other ‘Viennese School’ was the manner in which it revolutionised tactics, and rose to the top of world football. As Jonathan Wilson explains in his history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid (2008), the 1920s saw the sport expand beyond the narrow-minded, anti-intellectual British game into social classes comfortable with theorising, deconstructing, and abstract planning.

A player like Sindelar, with "brains in his legs", could play a new style of football based on technical skill and tactics. When Sindelar, Uridil, Josip Smistik and Walter Nausch played together for the Austrian national team, sparks flew. This so-called Wunderteam played a game of rapid interchanges: "the Danubian Whirl". Between 1931 and 1932, the team went on a 14-match unbeaten run. When they faced the mighty England in December 1932, crowds thronged the Heldenplatz listening to a radio broadcast of the match, and the Public Finance Committee took a break to tune in. In the words of the Arbeiter-Zeitung in 1931, the team represented "a tribute to Viennese aesthetic sense, imagination and passion".

This Viennese School, as so much of Central European culture, met its end at the hands of the 1930s’ totalitarian politics. The Wunderteam was overtaken by the muscular Italian side of Vittorio Pozzo. In the 1934 World Cup, held in Fascist Italy, the Danubian Whirl came unstuck in a violent and controversial semi-final against the hosts; Italy won 1-0 after the referee seemed to ignore a foul on the Austrian goalkeeper. In the final in Rome, Italy triumphed over Czechoslovakia, another waning Central European force. Wunderteam coach Hugo Meisl died in 1937, and following the Anschluss, Austria was forbidden to compete independently in the 1938 World Cup in France.

Sindelar’s story mirrors that of his homeland. On 3 Apr. 1938, he played in the notorious "Anschlussspiel", a political show trial of a match between an Ostmark XI and Nazi Germany. In the first half, Sindelar missed so many easy chances that it is widely assumed that he was mocking the German team. Reports suggest that he celebrated too well in front of senior-ranking Nazi officials. Whether or not this is true, it is well-known that Der Papierene refused to play for Nazi Germany, and made no secret of his Social Democratic leanings. Austria’s greatest ever player was found dead in his flat on 23 Jan., 1939, the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 35 years old.

Conspiracy theories have abounded ever since, claiming that Sindelar was murdered by the secret police for his passive opposition to the regime, or else for being Jewish. These claims seem unlikely: Sindelar’s family was Catholic, and neighbours had complained before his death of a faulty chimney pipe. Yet the Sindelar myth suggests something of the time and place in which he made his name. Given the horrors that followed, the romantic notion of interwar Vienna has even greater resonance. For good reason, it is important to remember the cosmopolitanism and innovation that this Central European capital embodied, and that its football reflected. The romanticised notion of the Kaffeehaus may today be a symbol of tourist chic, but that might be because we can never truly recover those afternoons spent singing the praises of Uridil and Sindelar.

Alfred Polger perhaps put it best in his obituary to Sindelar. "The good Sindelar followed the city, whose child and pride he was, to its death," he wrote. "For to live and play football in the downtrodden, broke, tormented city meant deceiving Vienna with a repulsive spectre of itself… how can one play football like that? And live, when a life without football is nothing?" ÷

Inverting the Pyramid

by Jonathan Wilson,

Orion (2009), pp. 384     

European Heroes: Myth, Identity, Sport

Edited by: Richard Holt, J.A.Mangan,

and Pierre Lanfranchi,

Routledge (1996)  pp. 184   


Order "Inverting the Pyramid" online

Order "European Heroes" online

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