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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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror