The striker who snubbed Hitler

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

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.