History is full of surprises and though events have already occurred, the past has always introduced a new perspective. Football is abundantly rich in history and its past is extremely explorative. What we believed to be an innovation of today, most of the times turns out to be a modification of an idea from the past. One of the best kept secrets of footballing history is situated in a tiny country of Europe. Amidst its boundaries was a team from the past that has immensely influenced the game today. The Wunderteam of Austria, the lethal innovators of beautiful football.
Back in the 1920’s, football was a game that relied completely on wingers. If you don’t have a winger, you don’t win. Coming up the ranks was a country that kept the ball on the grass and passed it all across the pitch. A new culture was on the rise. By 1930’s, Austria had become synonymous for playing an exclusive brand of football that was vastly different from the football being played in that era. A shocking formation of 2-3-5, suggested that scoring against this team was easy. But, that was a faulty assessment. Compact in nature and possessive with the ball, Austria was becoming a favorite to win the 1932 FIFA world cup with a unique style of play.
Der Papierene (The Paper man)
Matthias Sindelar, the Austrian captain and talismanic striker earned the name Der Papierene for his slim build and sleek structure. But, his structure didn’t hold him back from expressing himself. He was also called ‘The Mozart’ of football for his exquisite dribbling and vision. Sindelar was central to the Austrian style of play. He was deployed as a withdrawn striker who would utilize the gap between the opposition midfield and defense to orchestrate the proceedings of the play. His impeccable technique enabled quick passing constant movement of the team.
The Core and the coach
Sindelar was undoubtedly the main man, but accompanying him were Anton Schall, Karl Zischek, Franz Wagner and Franz Cisar. This set of players had the unique technique of receiving and accurately passing the ball with a single touch. These players had been raised in such style of play. The mastermind behind it was the head coach- Hugo Meisl.
Meisl took control of the Austrian football team in 1919 and developed players in a way that they adopt ‘one-touch-passing’ effortlessly. By the emergence of the 1930’s, Austria had become one of the major forces in football. Their 14 match unbeaten run announced them of the international stage and were also tipped to lift the World Cup.
The X factor
Meisl believed that the national team must comprise of players from a maximum of 2-3 clubs that play similar brand of football. For him ‘mould’ and ‘mindset’ of a player was essential. Though his team eventually had players from 7 different clubs, he had managed to get what he wanted. All his players played for teams in the capital Vienna. Almost a decade ago, Meisl had sown the seeds of his brand of football in the capital, now he was reaping the results.
The players knew each other very well; their communication with the ball was like orchestra according to football experts back then. Maisl’s trick had worked; a tiny unknown nation was ready to take on the world in the ensuing World Cup.
In 1932, Austria beat Italy in the Finals of the European championship to be crowned as the best team in Europe. Their next challenge was the World Cup. To make things tougher, group stages were discarded and a knockout format was implemented. Austrian play shocked the world at the grandest stage of all. Total Football was a treat to the eye. Austrian test appeared to be their challenge for supremacy, but they failed and lost in the semi-final to Italy. But, their true victory was the introduction of Total Football.
Meisl was responsible to lay the foundation of total football, a philosophy that was later adopted by the golden team of Hungary. Inspired by them, another Austrian Ernst Happel raised the Dutch team of 1978 that shook the World with its sumptuous play. The gem of Dutch total football’s golden generation, Johan Cruyff later instigated this system in Barcelona. In all the cases where this brand of football was adopted, pleasure to the fans and abundance to the trophy cabinet was achieved.
Austrian Wunderteam is certainly forgotten and least known by many today. But, their influence is still making us stand up in awe and appreciate a brand of football which is arguably the best that ever existed.