In the 1930's Austria laid claim to a team whose quality and verve sent legitimate shockwaves throughout Europe. The mastermind and father of this Wunderteam often mentioned in the same breath as the great Hungarian side of the 1950s and Brazil of 1970, was Hugo Meisl. The ingenious football innovator and connoisseur was one of the game's leading authorities of his era, governing the Austrian Football Association as General Secretary in the 1920s and 1930s and coaching the Alpine nation to initial prominence on Planet Football at the 1934 FIFA World Cup.
Born to a wealthy family, Meisl moved to Vienna as a child where he attended a commercial academy, training for a career in business before securing a position as a clerk with the Laenderbank. However, young Meisl had always harboured a passion for football and duly sacrificed a lucrative banking career to dedicate himself to perfecting the art and building a much-needed infrastructure for the sport. His knowledge earned him a reputation as an outstanding expert in his field.
As General Secretary of the Austrian Football Association, Meisl was a driving force in making football a professional sport not only in Austria, but throughout Europe. The shrewd expert in the burgeoning international game, he was the inventor of the Mitropa Cup, a precursor to the European Champions Cup. However, Meisl's greatest success came as coach of the fabled 'Wunderteam' that made footballing history in the 1930s.
On 22 December 1912, Hugo Meisl made his debut as national coach of the Alpine Republic at just 31 years of age. And it turned out to be a winning start, as his side overcame bitter rivals Italy 3-1 in Genoa.
Keeping it on the carpet
Meisl was in charge of the national team for just under two years before embarking on a five-year tour of service in the First World War. Heinrich Retschury subsequently took over the helm, but Meisl remained in relatively close contact and resumed sole control of the team at the beginning of 1919 after returning from the conflict.
Football enjoyed a golden era in the wake of the war, and Meisl was one of those in favour of professionalizing the sport. And in his position as General Secretary, he also played a major role in building the national team, along with his English friend Jimmy Hogan, who is largely credited with bringing what was then known as 'Scottish-style' football to the continent. His 'keep-it-on-the-carpet' philosophy particularly influenced Austria in the 1930s and Hungary's Magical Magyars in the 1950s - two teams regarded very highly for their controlled, technical style of play.
The Austrian Wunderteam, regarded by most as the greatest pre-World War Two team in Europe, was born in the early 1930s. A 2-1 victory against Czechoslovakia on 12 April 1931 would herald an unbeaten run of 14 matches for the Austrian team, consisting of eleven victories and three draws. This remarkable series of results also included two emphatic routs of Germany, who were outclassed 6-0 in Berlin and 5-0 in Vienna. However, the highlight of the run is traditionally seen as the 5-0 drubbing of Scotland on 16 May 1931 in Vienna, as it was the first time Scotland tasted defeat on the continent. Hungary were also humbled in an 8-2 thrashing, while Switzerland were swept aside 8-1 in Basel.
Playing with the Paper Dancer
Meisl's proxy on the pitch was the magical Matthias Sindelar, one of the greatest footballers of his generation and a genius of a playmaker who inspired the team to success. Nicknamed der Papierene on account of his lean, delicate stature, and 'The Mozart of Football' because of his virtuosity, Sindelar was the flamboyant, free-spirited soul of this well-drilled team.
The impressive run finally came to an end on 7 December 1932 when Meisl's charges were defeated for the first time in 15 tries by the game's English inventors. The upstarts went down bravely 4-3 in the birthplace of football at London's Stamford Bridge and even in defeat, the continentals' flair and strength was very much on display. It was an ironic return of Hogan's British methods that was a foreshadowing of Hungary's watershed 6-3 demolition of England in 1953.
Austria lost just one more game until the semi-finals of the 1934 FIFA World Cup' on 9 April 1933, when they were defeated 2-1 by Czechoslovakia. Between April 1931 and June 1934, the Wunderteam lost just three out of 31 games, scoring 101 goals.
Slouching into history
Austria's glory days were due to come at the 1934 FIFA World Cup in neighbouring Italy. Though they were a few years past their high-water mark, the Wunderteam confirmed their very real chances of winning the second global showpiece by thumping the hosts 4-2 in a friendly at the brand new Stadio Mussolini in Turin on the eve of the finals.
After their incredible run of form, Meisl's team understandably arrived at the finals with high expectations, but it was to be an unlucky competition all around. After a 3-2 extra-time win over France in Turin, Austria went on to eliminate Hungary in a 2-1 quarter-final triumph in Bologna to set up a semi-final clash with hosts Italy at Milan's San Siro stadium. The particularly bruising encounter with Hungary led Meisl to call it 'a brawl, not a football match,' and his team would rue the lingering injuries they picked up there.
Before the semi-final against Italy, coached by old friend and fellow innovator Vittorio Pozzo, Meisl remarked, 'We have no chance.' And, almost as if on queue, the heavens opened and a deluge of rain swamped the pitch. The conditions were a crushing blow for the fatigued Austrians who loved to play on the grass, as was the loss of injured dynamo Johann Horvath. And though Austria had their fair share of chances - some reports have Italian goalkeeper Giampiero Combi saving almost two dozen shots - Enrico Guaita's 10th-minute Azzurri goal held up 1-0, and Meisl, Sindelar and the Wunderteam would never truly cement their status in FIFA World Cup history.
Two years later Austria reached the final at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. However, once again it was Italy who denied Meisl and his men. The final, which ended in a 1-2 defeat remains to this day, the only time Austria have reached the ultimate match of a major international football tournament.
On 24 January 1937, Hugo Meisl took his place on the Austrian bench for the last time. And his team gifted him a farewell victory, defeating France 2-1 in Paris. Just weeks later, Hugo Meisl died at the age of 55. No Austrian national coach has been able to replicate his great success, and the subsequent German Anschluss of the Austrian team destroyed much of what the great man had created -- including der Papierene Sindelar, who died under mysterious circumstances soon after the Nazi occupation began. It was a quick and tragic end to a beautiful Viennese tale.
Jimmy Hogan's tactical ideas about football found little purchase in his native England, but he was openly accepted as both coach and tactician in Austria, Hungary and Germany among other places. One of the first men to take to Hogan's short-passing style was Hugo Meisl. The Austrian football administrator and Hogan adapted their ideas to the pitch, giving unprecedented emphasis to the creative centre half in a 2-3-5 'W-M' formation. The Austrian Wunderteam was an important step between the forward-thinking ideas of Herbert Chapman and Jimmy Hogan from England and Vittorio Pozzo's two-time FIFA World Cup champions Italy.