Matthias Sindelar: the striker who snubbed Hitler

As Austria co-hosts Euro 2008, Robin Stummer reports on the mystery of the great footballer Matthias Sindelar.

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 Pelé 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 sweat. There 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.

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 "der Papierne" - "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.

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 5-0 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.

A crowd of 60,000 packed Stamford Bridge to see the Austrians play England, while an even bigger throng crammed into Vienna's Heldenplatz for a radio commentary. The Wunderteam nearly pulled it off, running circles around England - but lost, just, 4-3. The British press hailed the newcomers: "English team lucky to win", was the Manchester Guardian's verdict. "There could not be the slightest doubt that as a team [Austria] were the superiors." "It was victory and no more," said the Times. "And it was by no means easily earned."

 

The Führer's plan

By the summer of 1934 Austria had won or drawn 28 out of 31 games and Sindelar's fame had spread even to the soccer-phobic United States. Sindi had begun to earn big money, endorsing sharp suits and luxury cars, gambling and womanising much of the cash away. The Wunderteam seemed unstoppable - but this was 1930s Mitteleuropa.

The Nazi ideologues liked international soccer. It was mass-propaganda-friendly, and there was the prospect of inevitable victory upon victory: a collective triumph of the national athletic will. Nazi Germany's soccer team found victory far from inevitable: they were, at best, middle-rankers. But the Führer's pudgy sports advisers had a plan.

One of the first actions of the new National Socialist government in Austria, set up after the March 1938 Anschluss, was to disband the country's professional football association, one of the oldest in the world. Jewish sports clubs and soccer teams were outlawed and their grounds seized, Jewish players barred, Jewish club officials sacked. Many fled abroad. Others, fatally, stayed put. Austria was to become Ostmark, a province of the Reich. Its soccer team would itself be annexed, players "invited" to join the German side; the team name "Austria" would go.

Many players and officials acquiesced to the takeover and some were even enthusiastic, active supporters. Sindelar, it seems, was not.

FK Austria Wien shed many of its directors, players and officials, sacked for being, or suspected of being, Jewish. Among them was the veteran club president Dr Michl Schwarz. Those who survived the purges were instructed not to speak to sacked colleagues. Sindelar refused. "The new club president has forbidden us to talk to you," he told the highly respected Schwarz shortly before the deposed president fled abroad, "but I will always speak to you, Herr Doktor." A clash with the New Order was on the cards.

On 3 April 1938, just weeks after the Nazis annexed Austria, the Wunderteam took to the field for the last time - against Germany. The Nazi sports authorities billed the match, at Vienna's Prater Stadium, as a "reunification" derby, a 90-minute celebration of Germanic brotherhood. It proved to be one of the most extraordinary soccer matches ever played.

Nazi propagandists ordained that the showpiece clash was to end as a low-scoring draw. For his part, Sindelar, it is said, demanded that his team be allowed to wear their traditional strip, not a new "non-national" kit, and that they be known for this, their last match, as "Austria". The Nazis agreed.

 

Shadows and secrets

The Wunderteam spent the first half of the match sullenly trying not to score. Up front, Sindelar and his team-mate Karl Sesta acted dumb, allowing the Germans to dictate play. The play-acting continued into the second half. But then, at around 70 minutes, something snapped. Sindi flicked a rebound from the German goalkeeper into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. The crowd erupted.

Nazi functionaries looked on in disbelief as, minutes later, Sesta slammed the ball into the German goal from 45 yards. 2-0. At full-time, the Prater Stadium crowd went wild, shouting: "Österreich, Österreich!" while, one account goes, Sindi ran up to the box containing Nazi dignitaries and club officials and waltzed around, alone, grinning.

Ten months later he was dead.

Sindelar's last year was bizarre. Even as Vienna lurched towards open thuggery and the "legal" seizure of property from Jewish citizens began, Sindelar apparently maintained close - and public - friendships with Jews.

Several times he was "requested", reportedly at the very highest level, to join the German (and thoroughly Nazi) national sports training organisation. Again he refused.

Was he suicidally principled, or just taking yet another losing punt - this time on the New Order fading fast? It would have been easy for Sindelar to take a job abroad, and he had influential friends in English soccer, but his next move was an unpredictable twist.

In summer 1938 Sindi, the "chess grandmaster of soccer", even in his mid-thirties one of the most bankable players in the world, bought a scruffy street-corner cafe in lowly Favoriten and turned his back on soccer.

The cafe's previous owner, a Jewish acquaintance of Sindelar's called Leopold Drill, was being turfed out by the Nazis - one of the many "legalised" thefts taking place throughout the city. The star, it is said, stepped in with a cash offer for the business that was far more generous than the pittance offered by local party bureaucrats. The deal done, Sindi slicked back his hair and quietly served beer and coffee to his old mates. The Gestapo kept the cafe under surveillance, noting that its new owner was friendly with all customers, Jews included. About half the clientele had been Jewish, the Gestapo estimated. Sindelar was known to be "not sympathetic" to the party, it was reported.

And then, on 23 January 1939, a friend, worried that he had not seen Sindelar for some time, forced his way into his flat on Annagasse in the city centre. He found the star in bed, dead. Lying beside him was his latest lover. Unconscious, she lived a few hours longer. Sindelar was 35. The police investigation concluded that the couple had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. A chimney flue was found to be blocked, and poor maintenance blamed. Few believed the official version.

More than 20,000 people turned out for Sindi's funeral. In some ways it was Vienna's first, and last, rally against the Nazis. In other respects, however, it was no more than a fare well to a local hero.

That ambiguity, a Viennese trait then and now, is at the heart of the Sindelar story. The British film classic The Third Man, filmed in part amid the bomb sites of the Austrian capital nearly a decade after the player's death, captured the mood and manners of the city: shadows, secrets and whispers. The whispering endures.

The few facts surrounding Sindelar are entwined with rumours still circulating in Vienna. Take the police report on his death: lost in the war, says the Austrian national archive. No, there for the reading but hard to find, maintain some historians. Or Sindelar's cafe: bought by the star at a fair price to help out its fleeing Jewish owner, say some. No, "stolen" by an opportunist Sindelar for a fraction of its true value, say others. Or the player's death: clearly murder, many believe. No, it was suicide, a few argue, an act of despair at the fate of Austria - a theory popular among the left-leaning coffee-house literati who idolised him. Or a gangland hit, linked to the star's supposedly huge gambling debts. Or murder at the hands of his lover, who then poisoned herself. Or a Gestapo killing to prevent Sindelar embarrassing the Reich by fleeing abroad. Or, yes, just an accident.

About Sindelar himself, Vienna's rumour mills have been working overtime. "He was really Jewish, not Catholic, you know, but kept it secret," went one whisper this past week. "Actually he was a Nazi, but maybe only 1 per cent of him. He could see the way things were going," was another.

The building that was once Sindelar's cafe was quietly demolished a couple of years ago. "They did not want it there as a reminder of him," said one fan, declining to elaborate on who "they" might be. "It was old, it had to go, development," shrugged another.

The few seconds of newsreel footage of Matthias Sindelar the football player are all that remains beyond doubt - a glimpse of a delicate, intuitive player with a kind face. And a face, for whatever reason, is just about all that survives of the Paper Man.

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle