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Revisiting The Wunderteam

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When we spot Austria on a map, we think of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, The Sound of Music, great skiers, pianists, shrinks, Ah-nold, sausages, and the great city of Vienna. In other words, a bunch of things except soccer.

With a FIFA ranking of 63, who can blame you?

A while ago, I contributed a piece about the two best teams to never win the World Cup in Holland of the 1970s and Hungary of the 1950s. Here, I introduce the Austrians of the 1930s.

Forgotten in the long timeline of world soccer, the talented Austrians were once upon a time a soccer power. Known as the Wunderteam, they were arguably the greatest team of the pre-war era. As a result. the Austrians – led by the likes of Ernst Ocwirk, Ernst Happel, Gerhard Hanappi, and Walter Zeman – went on an unbeaten streak of 14 games between April 1931 and December 1932.

The Wunderteam’s greatest practitioner was the flamboyant Matthias Sindelar (aka the Mozart of football). Evidently no stranger to nicknames, Sindelar was also known as the “man of paper” for how easily he eluded and weaved around players. He was a free spirit on a team that accentuated a strong work ethic.

A brilliant soccer mind, Hugo Meisl was the architect and manager (until his death in 1937) behind the Wunderteam. Meisl was also the innovator behind creating the Mitropa Cup in 1927 – the first important international competition. Along with his English friend Jimmy Hogan, he introduced the Scottish school of soccer that focused on quick passing as opposed to the kick and rush aerial style of the early English game.

Entering the 1934 World Cup, Austria were among the clear favorites to win as they routed many of their opponents. They had also beaten Italy 4-2 at the Central European International Cup before the World Cup. Keep in mind, central Europe – notably Hungary and Czechoslovakia – were producing some of the best footballers in the world at the time so this was not a weak accomplishment.

Unfortunately for the Austrians, in a game Meisl felt his side had no chance, tight Italian marking and poor weather conspired against them in the semi-final game won by eventual champions Italy. Austria finished fourth after losing the 3rd place match to Germany.

Just like that, the Wunderteam were gone. If the World Cup disappointment put an end to this fine side, the Anchluss in 1938 with Germany destroyed Austrian football.

Like a tragic opera, this dark period in Austria’s history coincided with the suicide of Matthias Sindelar.

Between the Austrian Wunderteam, Jimmy Hogan and another close friend to Meisl Italian manager Vittorio Pozzo, the 1930s was a golden age that was rudely interrupted with the rise of Nazi Germany.

Austria made a triumphant return at the 1954 World Cup as their thrilling 7-5 victory over Switzerland in the semi-finals showed. They would finish 3rd after a 3-1 victory over Uruguay.

This is as close to greatness as they would ever come. From there, the Austrian soccer program has been in steady decline ever since.

Historically, the Austrian national team qualified seven times for the World Cup finishing third (1954), 4th (1934) and with respectable 7th (1978) and 8th (1982) place finishes. In 1936, Austria’s amateur team won the silver medal in the Olympic football tournament in Berlin.

Now you know it’s not all just about Freud in Austria. A long time ago they also were a soccer power.

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About Alessandro Nicolo