Viennese whirl: The first man

SindelarWe’ve all seen the movie, starring Orson Welles and featuring that hypnotic tune, The Harry Lime theme by Anton Karas. Vienna is renowned for its association with Carol Reed’s film, The Third Man, so much so that it is constantly on show in a Viennese cinema. Of course, those more concerned with recent events will link the Austrian capital with Ultravox and that outstanding electro-pop song from the 80s, Vienna, again a landmark of its kind.

But never mind The Third Man, the first man of Viennese football was Matthias Sindelar, who was the star of Das Wunderteam of the 1930s. In this era, many considered Austria to be the best team in the world, but unrest in Europe and politics probably deprived that team of a genuine crack at the World Cup in 1934. Apart from a brief flirtation with success in the late 1970s, Austrian football has remained a tepid affair.

I sat through 90 turgid minutes of the national team’s friendly international with Greece, played in Salzburg. It was dire stuff, although I wasn’t that surprised, having watched Austria lose at home to Croatia in their opening game of Euro 2008. They were beaten by a Luka Modric penalty in that clash.

Das Team, as they are affectionately known, is drawn from all over Europe. Against Greece, not one of the starting line-up played its football in Austria. This demonstrates two things: firstly, Austria do have some decent players, hence they are attractive to clubs in Italy, Germany, Russia and England; and secondly, there is probably a lack of cash in the domestic game to keep the best players at home.

Mostly, the Austrian team plys its trade in Germany: David Alaba is a regular at Bayern Munich and well known across the continent. Against Greece, Das Team barely broke sweat and caused the visitors no damage at all. That said, they claim a resurgence of some sort is in process and they have a chance of qualifying for World Cup 2014. In the coming weeks, games away in Germany and Sweden, and a home game with Ireland will decide their fate.

But back to Sindelar. He was arguably the finest player in Europe in the inter-war years and is still fondly remembered by the game’s historians. Having read about this extraordinary player, someone who railed against the Nazi regime when Anchluss set in, I wanted to pay homage to Austria’s greatest player.

Surprisingly, it was not that difficult. He is buried in the Zentralfriedhof cemetery, a short tram-ride away from central Vienna. And he’s in good company, laying just a long free-kick away from a bunch of other men who were at the top of their game: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and assorted Strausses.

Sindelar’s grave, I am pleased to say, had fresh flowers placed on it and was kept clean and very visible. And this was 74 years after the great man was found dead in bed amid suspicious circumstances. It shows that not even a World War and the long-time decline of the game in Austria can diminish the memory of a footballing legend…

Game of the People has been on assignment in Vienna – this article is one of a series that will appear in the coming days.

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