As a middling European nation, Austria have never touched the heights of peers such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Netherlands at club or national level, however this might have been very different but for the rise of Nazism which destroyed the great Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s created by Hugo Meisl.
Meisl was born in Bohemia in 1881 and after moving to Vienna in his youth initially pursued a career in banking but switched to work for the Austrian Football Association, after becoming a top class referee, officiating internationals and at the 1912 Olympics.
As an administrator he pioneered the establishment of professional league football in Austria in the early 1920s and also created the Mitropa Cup, one of the first international competitions for club sides in Central Europe which lasted until 1992, and the Central European International Cup for national teams. These competitions were effectively the forerunners of the Champions League and the Euros.
Appointed coach of the Austrian national team in 1913, and assuming full control in 1919, Meisl was also an innovator on the pitch, working with other men who made modern football such as Herbert Chapman (#4), Vitorio Pozzo (#10) and Jimmy Hogan (#7). Working closely with the latter, he was keen to keep the ball on the ground encouraging crisp passing. Using the successful Scots team as their template, what followed has been cited as the first example of total football which Austrian Ernst Happel (#20) exported to the Netherlands in the 1960s.
As the 1920s drew to a close Austria became the pre-eminent European team and in a twenty month period from April 1931 went on a fourteen match unbeaten run which included winning the Central European International Cup with a 4-2 win over Italy. This run also featured the first ever win by a non-British team over the Scots who had earlier been Meisl’s source of inspiration.
Fielding one of the leading players in the world, Mathias Sindelaar, known as the paper man (Die Papierene) for his slight appearance which saw him ghost through challenges, Austria were naturally favourites to win the first World Cup to be played in Europe in 1934 in Italy.
A tough quarter-final win over rivals Hungary, came at the cost of losing Johann Horvarth to injury. They then faced a determined host nation in the semi-final who took an early lead, and then desperately held on to it on a heavy pitch which hampered the Austrians’ passing game. The Italians won the match 1-0 and went on to win the Cup by beating Czechoslovakia 2-1. Austria finished fourth having lost the play off to Germany 3-2.
Two years later Meisl took his team one step further to the Olympic final in Germany. In the run up to the 1936 games, Austria became only the fifth non British team to beat isolationist England with a 2-1 win in Vienna. At the finals a quarter-final defeat by Peru was annulled by the head of the host state, Adolf Hitler, which led to the Peruvians’ withdrawal. Italy again proved to be Austria’s nemesis, winning the final 2-1, the runners up spot remaining Austria’s best achievement to date.
Meisl died in 1937, and within a year his Wunderteam had been broken up by the Nazis in the wake of the Anschluss. After qualifying for the 1938 World Cup in France, the country was annexed by Germany in March and within two weeks the Austrian FA was abolished, with Germany now representing the whole territory at the finals as FIFA accepted Austria’s withdrawal. The Austrian team were all eligible for selection for Germany but were given one last outing in a “reunification” derby. This was supposed to finish in a draw but wearing a special red and white kit to assert their national identity the Austrians eased to a win with two late Sindelaar goals. Having celebrated vigorously in front of the watching Nazi leaders, Sindelaar went on to deliberately miss a further chance. He further demonstrated his refusal to bow to fascism by refusing to play for the new national team and was found dead in mysterious circumstances in 1939. He was voted Austria’s Sportsman of the century in 2000.