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Born: Sunday 7 March 1926, Vienna, Austria
Died: Wednesday 23 January 1980, Klein-Pöchlarn, Austria (aged 53)
Position: Centre-half/Defensive Midfielder
One of Austria's most skilful players of the post-war era, Ernst Ocwirk was at the heart of the team which reached the semi-final of the World Cup in 1954. One of the last old-fashioned attacking centre-halves, he spent much of career with Austria Vienna but was also one of the first Austrians to make an impact in Serie A. His style of play later helped to define the position of a holding defensive midfielder.
Ocwirk was born in Vienna on 7 March 1926 and in his youth was a keen handball player as well as an extremely talented footballer. During his youth career with FC Stadlau, he most frequently appeared at centre-forward and he remained at that position after joining Floridsdorfer AC in 1942. It was while with Floridsdorfer that he encountered Josef Smistik, a member of Austria's 'Wunderteam' of the 1930s, who encouraged him to convert to centre-half.
Ocwirk quickly displayed great talent at his new position and in 1945 he made his first appearance for Austria in his country's first post-war international against Hungary. With Austria's leading clubs chasing his signature, Smistik wanted him to move to Rapid Vienna, where he had spent much of his own career. However, Austria Vienna made a move for him in 1947, offering to help find the renovation of Florisdorfer's home ground in return for Ocwirk's signature.
Ocwirk would spend the next nine years at Austria Vienna, developing a reputation as one of the most stylish and technically gifted centre-halves in the game. Such was his consistency on the pitch, the British media nicknamed him 'clockwork' in a play on his surname. He was particularly known for his aerial ability and range of passing, especially over longer distances. In his first season with Austria Vienna he helped the club to win the Austrian Cup, before being named in the national squad for the 1948 Olympic Games in London.
Austria fell in the first round after a 3-0 defeat to eventual gold medallists Sweden, but the following season would bring massive success at domestic level. Austria Vienna claimed the league title by two points from previous champions Rapid, before completing a double with a 5-2 cup final victory over Vorwärts Steyr. They would retain the title a year later and in 1951 Ocwirk was named as Austrian Sportsman of the Year.
As the 1950s progressed, attacking centre-halves in Ocwirk's style began to go out of fashion, replaced by much more defensively minded players. Ocwirk often found himself moved to a slightly more advanced position, gradually making more and more appearances at wing-half. After narrowly missing out for two years, he won the third league title of his career with Austria Vienna in 1953 and later that year was one of three Austrian players selected in the FIFA XI which drew 4-4 with England in the FA's 90th anniversary match.
Ocwirk was named captain of that select team, both for that match and another in 1954. He would also captain his country in that year's World Cup finals in Switzerland. Austria won both group matches, against Scotland and Czechoslovakia, to set up a quarter-final with the host nation. That match would prove to be the highest scoring game in World Cup history and Ocwirk even got on the scoresheet with a rare goal. Austria had trailed 3-0 inside 23 minutes, but Ocwirk's goal incredibly gave them a 4-3 lead less than ten minutes later. Having led 5-4 at half-time, they eventually won the match by the amazing scoreline of 7-5.
Unfortunately for Austria, the semi-final with West Germany was something of an anti-climax. They trailed 2-0 at half-time and this time had no answer, eventually losing 6-1. There was however the consolation of a 3-1 win over Uruguay in the third place match, with Ocwirk again on target, a feat which remains Austria's best World Cup performance. He was named in FIFA's team of the tournament, one of only two Austrians ever to receive that honour alongside Matthias Sindelar.
Regular big-money offers came in from foreign clubs and in 1956 Ocwirk made the decision to leave Austria. He signed for Sampdoria in Italy, impressed by the enthusiasm for the game in that country. Ocwirk scored within two minutes on his league debut and would be ever-present in his first season, scoring a career-high 12 league goals as he became further accustomed to his more advanced midfield position. His influence on the team was recognised when he was named club captain.
Ocwirk stayed with Sampdoria for five years, during which time they finished in a highest position of fourth in his final season of 1960-61. At the age of 35, he returned to Austria Vienna for a second spell and won the fourth league title of his career in 1962. Austria Vienna also reached the cup final, where with the match against Grazer AK poised at 1-1 midway through the second half he put his team back in front with a vital strike. Austria Vienna went on to win 4-1. During that season he even made a one-off appearance for the national team, having not been selected since his move to Italy.
Ocwirk's playing career came to an end early in the 1962-63 season, a campaign which would ultimately end in another league and cup double for Austria Vienna. He was immediately appointed manager of his old club Sampdoria, but his three years in charge were not a success. Sampdoria regularly found themselves battling relegation, staying in Serie A only after a play-off in 1964 and surviving by just a point a year later.
In 1965 Ocwirk returned to Austria Vienna as manager and two years later won the first major honour of his coaching career in the most bizarre circumstances. After an aggregate draw with LASK, the final was astonishingly decided on the toss of a coin, which Austria Vienna won. Ocwirk would later lead the club to back-to-back league titles in 1969 and 1970 before moving to West Germany to manage 1. FC Köln, who he led to a cup final against Bayern Munich in 1971, narrowly losing after extra-time.
Ocwirk's final managerial job was with the newly-merged Admira/Wacker, who he led for two years. His time in charge came to a sudden end when he tore an Achilles tendon running onto the field and in retirement his health quickly declined. Ocwirk suffered from multiple sclerosis and the disease eventually claimed his life on 23 January 1980, aged just 53. He died on the 41st anniversary of the death of Matthias Sindelar, another of the finest Austrian players of all time.
References (all accessed 16/17 March 2012):
- Published on Saturday, 17 March 2012 01:02