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Born: Wednesday 16 November 1881, Maleschau, Austria-Hungary (now Malešov, Czech Republic)
Died: Wednesday 17 February 1937, Vienna, Austria (aged 55)
Legendary Austrian coach Hugo Meisl, who led the national team for nearly a quarter of a century either side of the First World War, is recognised as one of the most influential figures in the early years of European football. Taking a variety of roles within the game, he led his country through the most successful period in their history and introduced ideas which left a lasting legacy on the game.
Meisl was born on 16 November 1881 into a Jewish family in the town of Maleschau in Bohemia, which at the time was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. While he was still a child, the family moved to Vienna and it was there that he trained for a career in banking. However he also developed a keen interest in football, and around the turn of the 20th century he joined the Vienna Cricket and Football Club. In his short playing career he had a reputation as a quick and skilful winger.
It would not be as a player, though, that Meisl would make his name within football. By 1905, he had qualified as a referee and was renowned for having a knowledge of the laws of the game that was second to none, as well as a superb ability to understand and relate to players. In all, he refereed 16 international matches, including England's 7-0 win in Hungary in 1908 and a first round match between Italy and Sweden in the Stockholm Olympics in 1912.
At the same time, he was becoming involved in the administrative side of football within Austria. Joining the board of the Austrian Football Federation, he played a part in the selection of the team in the build up to those same Olympics of 1912. By the end of that year, Meisl had become the head coach of the national side, enjoying a perfect start with a 3-1 victory over Italy in Genoa, three days before Christmas. Around the same time, he was also involved with coaching at club level with Austria Vienna.
Within two years of his appointment as national coach, Europe was plunged into war and Meisl spent much of the First World War serving in Serbia, but by 1919 he was back in full control and set about building Austria into one of the finest sides in the world. Assisted by English coach Jimmy Hogan, an emphasis was placed on playing short passes on the ground rather than long balls towards the centre-forward. This was something of a revolutionary tactic at the time, and during the 1920s results steadily improved, with a 4-0 thrashing of Italy in 1924 and a 6-0 defeat of Hungary three years later among the highlights.
By the time of that 1927 game against Hungary, Meisl had recognised the role that football was able to play in building relationships between the new states which had emerged in east-central Europe following the First World War. He had risen to the position of General Secretary of the Austrian Football Federation, and using the influence that gave him he proposed the introduction of an international competition for club sides. The 'Mitropa Cup', as it would be called, was played for the first time in 1927, including teams from Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. The competition continued to be held for more than 50 years.
In addition to the Mitropa Cup, Meisl also proposed a similar competition for national teams, each edition of which was played across several seasons. This competiton provided regular competitive matches for national teams in central Europe, at a time when many (including Meisl's Austria) declined the invitation to enter the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. Austria would win the second of these competitions, played in 1931 and 1932, and combined with 6-0 and 5-0 wins in friendlies against Germany, Meisl's team were established as the leading team in the region.
The second World Cup was to be played in 1934, and Meisl's Austria were among the favourites. He built an exciting, attacking team which by the time of their qualifying match against Bulgaria, had lost just twice in 27 matches across the previous three years, and acquired the nickname "the Wunderteam". Austria crushed Bulgaria 6-1 to qualify for the World Cup finals, and in a straight knockout tournament they beat France and Hungary to advance to a semi-final against hosts Italy. With their star playmaker Matthias Sindelar marked out of the game by tough-tackling Luis Monti, Austria were beaten by a single goal and perhaps the best chance they would ever have to win the World Cup was gone. A 3-2 defeat to Germany in the Third Place Play-Off left them in a final position of fourth.
Meisl remained in charge after the World Cup, and led the team into the 1936 Olympic tournament in Berlin. In a controversial quarter-final against Peru, his team were beaten 4-2 but appealed the result after Peruvian fans invaded the pitch and attacked Austrian players. When the match was ordered to be replayed, Peru withdrew in protest and Austria were given their place in the last four. A comfortable win over Poland took them through to the final, where there would be a chance for revenge against the Italians. Meisl's team came from behind to force extra-time, but an early goal in that extra period condemned them to another disappointing defeat.
Austria would never again come so close to international success, that Olympic final being the only time they have reached the final of an international competition. By early 1937, Meisl's reign of more than 24 years as coach of the national team came to an end. His final match, in January of that year, was a 2-1 victory over France. In total, he won 78 of his 155 games in charge, a winning percentage just a fraction over 50%. After leaving his coaching position, Meisl planned to remain as a senior official with the Austrian Football Federation but died suddenly just weeks later, after suffering a heart attack. He was 55 years old.
Prolific striker Josef Bican, who was one of the star players of Meisl's 1934 World Cup squad, remembered him as a man who was an inspirational motivator and a coach whose ability to suprise opponents marked him out from his contemporaries. Certainly few people in the history of the game have achieved success in as many fields as Hugo Meisl during his career as a player, coach, referee and administrator.
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- Published on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 20:30