"Zischek scored twice, but Sindelar’s goal was a masterpiece, which no-one else - no-one before him, and no-one after him - could possibly have scored against opponents as good as the English. Starting on the halfway line, Sindelar set off and, in his inimitably elegant manner, dribbled round everything which came at him, finishing with a backheel and a shot into the net," noted Belgian referee John Langenus, describing a goal by Austria forward Matthias Sindelar in his country’s 4-3 defeat by England in 1932.
Some 54 years would pass before a certain Diego Maradona netted a comparably brilliant solo effort against the Three Lions at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, but the 1932 match official’s gushing choice of words and obvious admiration offer a glimpse of just how breathtaking the goal in London must have been. It was destined to be the finest strike in the player’s illustrious career.
Sindelar was born almost exactly 29 years earlier, in the Austro-Hungarian village of Kozlau, now in the modern-day Czech Republic. He and his family soon left the village for the courtly elegance of imperial capital Vienna. The young Matthias grew up in distinctly modest circumstances: for their leisure-time kickabouts, he and his friends had no real football, using instead a Fetzenlaberl, a ball sewn together from rags and scraps of cloth.
Sindelar’s natural talent and dribbling skill soon became apparent, even in the unpromising surroundings of the Vienna streets. During his apprenticeship as a locksmith he began looking for a club to join, but it would be two whole years before he began playing organised football.
At 16, he was discovered by a teacher who specialised in scouting young talent for a variety of clubs. Sindelar joined ASV Hertha, where he gained his initial experience of regular play in a structured environment. His impressive displays in their youth section saw him promoted to the first team at the age of 18, by which time he had already earned the nickname 'Papierene' (Paper Man), due to his wafer-like build and his avoidance of physical contact on the field. Sindelar settled rapidly to the demands of the Austrian championship and began scoring regularly, earning first-choice status at his club the following season.
The prodigious talent suffered a setback in 1923, when he sustained a knee injury in a non football-related incident. The player feared the worst, but a successful operation performed by renowned surgeon Dr. Hans Spitzy ensured he was able to resume his career. However, the mishap merely strengthened Sindelar’s determination to shun the physical side of the game, a style which became his own unique trademark.
A year after his injury, the striker and Hertha parted company. Relegation had left the club with financial difficulties and players had to be sold to raise funds.
New club and a maiden trophy
Sindelar opted to remain in Vienna and signed for Amateur Sportvereinigung, who had just won the championship. After initial problems adapting to his new club, the player hit his stride and rapidly became a crowd-pleasing hero.
The year 1925 brought a first trophy in the shape of the Austrian Cup, and a runners-up medal in the league. The following season, Sindelar fired his side to the domestic league and cup double. The club, which adopted the familiar modern name Austria Vienna in November 1926, provided an appropriate setting for Sindelar to hone his skills and add maturity to his game, but the team as a whole was inconsistent and honours were relatively thin on the ground.
Sindelar and Co won the cup in 1927 and 1930, but the league title was never a realistic prospect in this period, as Austria spent much of their time battling relegation. The only ray of light was provided by the gifted young forward, who had by now become one of the most popular personalities in all Vienna.
Sindelar made his senior debut for his country in 1926 as a 23-year-old, netting the winner in a 2-1 victory over Czechoslovakia. He also scored and earned rave notices in his next two games against Switzerland and Sweden.
However, the player’s individual skill on the ball and tendency to try tricks and risky passes led to a lengthy interruption in his international career. Austria captain Hugo Meisl blamed Sindelar’s perceived selfishness for a defeat against a south German XI, and the player was left out of the side for 14 matches. It was 1931 before he made a comeback, the association bowing to a wave of popular support and media pressure.
Birth of the Wunderteam
In his first appearance after the three years in the wilderness, Sindelar fired Austria to a shock 5-0 triumph against Scotland, who had never been beaten before on continental European soil. The victory marked the start of the greatest sustained period of success in Austrian footballing history, and the birth of the 'Wunderteam' (Wonder Team).
Meisl’s men rattled up big victories against Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium, although the highlight was reserved for 24 April 1932, when the Austrians thrashed arch-rivals Hungary 8-2. The 29-year-old Sindelar scored a hat-trick, and provided perfect lay-offs for the other five goals.
In the same year, Austria won the Central European International Cup, a precursor to the modern UEFA EURO. Sindelar, literally a lightweight at 5ft 8ins and 168lbs, was now captain of an extraordinarily successful team, whose solitary defeat in the period ended up feeling more like a victory, and he became known as 'The Mozart of Football'.
It was early December 1932 when the Austrians fell 4-3 to England in London, but became the first team to score more than once against the English on their home turf. That was the evening including Sindelar’s wonder goal for the 'Wunderteam', as so eloquently recorded by referee Langenus.
Sindelar was subsequently able to translate his rich vein of form for the national team to his efforts at club level. As the Wunderteam’s fortunes gradually declined, so the goal-getter began amassing honours with his beloved Austria Vienna. The player is widely credited with the pivotal role in securing the club’s first European success, as the Violets claimed the 1933 edition of the Mitropa Cup, officially La Coupe de l'Europe Centrale and the first truly international continental club competition. In the final against Ambrosiana Inter Milan, led by the legendary Giuseppe Meazza, the then 30-year-old Sindelar scored all three goals in a decisive 3-1 second leg victory, producing a 4-3 aggregate triumph.
The 1934 FIFA World Cup was to prove a letdown. The Austrians went into the tournament as favourites, but ultimately finished fourth after losing in the semi-finals to hosts and eventual world champions Italy. However, Sindelar continued to thrive with his club. Austria Vienna won the domestic cup in 1935 and 1936, and claimed a second Mitropa Cup triumph the same year courtesy of a narrow away-leg victory in the final against Sparta Prague.
Mysterious and tragic death
After the Nazi occupation and annexation in March 1938, Austrian football in its previous form swiftly ceased to exist. Just two months later, all professional footballing contracts were cancelled and so-called Jewish clubs forbidden, with Austria one of those affected.
At the time, Sindelar purchased a café by way of securing an alternative means of support and repeatedly refused to play for the post-Anschluss all-Germany team managed by Sepp Herberger, despite a series of call-ups.
The player's last game for Austria Vienna, now restored to their original name after a few enforced months as SC Ostmark Vienna, was on 26 December 1938 and took place in Berlin. Sindelar scored the last goal of his extraordinary career in a 2-2 draw with Hertha BSC. On 23 January 1939, Matthias Sindelar was found dead in his apartment, officially of carbon monoxide poisoning, although the circumstances remain mysterious and unexplained to this day.
His passing deprived a city in turmoil of one of its favourite sons and idols. Some 15,000 citizens accompanied Sindelar’s cortege to the main cemetery in Vienna, where an act of remembrance is still performed every year on the day of his death.
Sindelar’s huge popularity in in the 1920s earned him a series of lucrative advertising deals for suits, watches and dairy products. A Sindelar-branded football also went on sale.
After his father’s death, Sindelar became a locksmith’s apprentice, seeking to support his family financially. He was just 14 at the time.
In 1917, when he was just 14, Sindelar suffered the heavy blow of losing his father, who was killed in the First World War on the Isonzo front.
As a small boy, Matthias Sindelar was known as Motzl, a nickname he retained until his death.