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Born: Tuesday 10 February 1903, Kozlov, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic)
Died: Monday 23 January 1939, Vienna, German-occupied Austria (aged 35)
Position: Centre Forward
Austrian centre-forward Matthias Sindelar was perhaps the greatest star of his country's famous 'Wunderteam' of the 1930s. Nicknamed 'paper-man' owing to his slight build, he was nevertheless a remarkably skilful and creative player. Fiercely proud of his country, he came into conflict with the German authorities following the annexation of Austria in 1938, possibly leading to his early death in tragic and mysterious circumstances.
He was born Matěj Šindelář in the small town of Kozlov in Moravia, on 10 February 1903. Moravia was at that time still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and when he was just two years old the family moved to Vienna, settling in an area with a large Czech-speaking community. Learning football in the streets of Vienna as he grew up, Sindelar took on the more German-sounding name of Matthias.
His football career began at the age of 15 with Hertha Vienna, where he would spend the next six years. Although he broke into the first team at 18, Hertha were never able to content for major honours and by 1924 was facing financial difficulties. When the club was relegated from the top division at the end of the 1923-24 season, Sindelar was sold to raise funds. He joined the reigning Austrian champions SV Amateure, now known as Austria Wien, where he would spend the remainder of his career.
Sindelar was remarkably skilled at avoiding challenges from opposing defenders, being blessed with superb ball control and dribbling ability. His time with Amateure/Austria got off to a hugely successful start, with the Austrian Cup being won in his first season and a league and cup double in his second - sealed by a thrilling 4-3 win over Wiener AC in the cup final. Sindelar's performances in the double winning season earned him his first call up to the national team early in the 1926-27 season. He scored on his debut, in a 2-1 win over Czechoslovakia in Prague.
Austria were developing a very strong national team, with Sindelar as it's focal point. Although they did not go to the inaugural World Cup in 1930, it was the early years of the new decade that saw the country emerge as one of international football's major forces. In 1931 Sindelar scored in a 5-0 win over Scotland which is considered by many to mark the beginning of the 'Wunderteam' era. The following year, he went on a run of scoring eight goals in five international, capped by a hat-trick in a crushing 8-2 win over Hungary. His performances helped Austria to win the second edition of the Central European International Cup, and they came to be considered as one of the favourites to win the 1934 World Cup.
Although his club were regularly in the middle to lower reaches of the Austrian league, Sindelar won another cup winner's medal in 1933 as the now renamed Austria Wien defeated BAC by a single goal. That year also brought success in Europe's only international club competition of the time, the Mitropa Cup. Early in 1934, the national team faced Bulgaria for a place in the World Cup. Sindelar scored one of the goals as Austria duly cruised to a 6-1 victory to take their place in the finals in Italy that summer.
When the finals came round, Austria were drawn to face France in the first round of the straight knockout tournament. With Austria trailing 1-0, it was Sindelar whose equaliser forced extra-time where two more Austrian goals gave the team a place in the last eight. A narrow win over Hungary set up a semi-final meeting with Italy, and the host nation identified Sindelar as the danger man who they had to stop. He was man-marked by tough tackling half-back Luis Monti, who rendered him almost totally ineffective and Italy edged through to the final 1-0. That would prove to be Sindelar's final World Cup appearance, as by the time of the next finals in 1938 Austria had been invaded and annexed by Nazi Germany.
At club level, the two seasons following the World Cup brought yet more cup success. In 1935, Sindelar scored twice in the opening 20 minutes of the final against WAC as Austria Wien went on to win 5-1. Twelve months later, he was again on target in a 3-0 win over Wiener AC as the club claimed a third cup win in just four years. They also added another Mitropa Cup win in 1936, which would prove to be the final major honour of Sindelar's career.
The annexation of Austria in 1938 was a major turning point in Sindelar's life. His final official appearance for the national team had come in September 1937 against Switzerland, but there was to be one final game for Austria, a 'reconciliation match' against Germany. Sindelar scored in the match, which Austria won 2-0, and celebrated wildly in front of the senior Nazi officials who were watching. Germany tried to strengthen their team by calling up players from Austria, but Sindelar refused to play for the 'unified' team despite being selected several times. He cited old age or injury, but his reasons went deeper than that. Manager Sepp Herberger spoke of Sindelar's relief when Herberger told him that he understood why he did not want to play.
Under Nazi rule, professional contracts were banned and all references to 'Austria' were removed from team names, although Austria Wien later won a battle to have their name restored. As a means of gaining income, Sindelar bought a café when its Jewish owner was forced to give the business up, and he began to be investigated by the Gestapo as a result of his links with the Jewish community. He was increasingly disillusioned with the way the German authorities were controlling the Austrian game, and he also knew that at 35 his career would soon be coming to an end anyway.
On 26 December 1938, Sindelar scored what would prove to be the final goal of his career in a 2-2 draw between Austria Vien and Hertha BSC Berlin. Less than one month later, a friend grew concerned upon being unable to contact Sindelar and broke into his apartment. Sindelar was lying dead in bed, killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Next to him was his girlfriend, who would later die in hospital. Rumours around the circumstances of their deaths have raged for years, with the official cause being an accident.
An accident was plausible, as neighbours had complained of faulty chimneys in the preceding days, but many did not believe it. Some suggested Sindelar had committed suicide, but far more believed that he had been murdered by the authorities. It was claimed at various times that they had been killed because either Sindelar or his girlfriend had been Jewish, although that was not the case. One of his friends suggested that the official account was created so that he could be allowed a 'grave of honour', which he would not have been had his death been murder or suicide.
Sindelar was just 35 years old when he died. Estimates of the number of people who turned out for his funeral in Vienna range from 15,000 to 20,000. He is still regarded as Austria's greatest ever footballer, and some 60 years after his death would be named as Austria's 'Sportsman of the Century'.
References (all accessed 21 December 2011):
- Published on Wednesday, 21 December 2011 20:30