Austria’s national men’s football team, which was nicknamed the “Wunderteam”, was one of the best teams in Europe.
1938 was a bad time for football, especially in Austria. Hitler's Nazi Germany annexed the nation on March 12th. The country's passion for football came to a halt as the Nazi regime carried out a massive overhaul of the association, league system and the clubs. Austria's national men's football team, which was nicknamed the "Wunderteam", was one of the best teams in Europe. They finished fourth in the 1934 World Cup after losing to the eventual champions Italy in the semi-final. The team, coached by Hugo Meisl, and spearheaded by the superstar Matthias Sindelar, was touted as one of the favourites to win the 1938 edition of the World Cup.
But that all changed after the Nazi overhaul. On March 28, Fifa was notified that Austrian Football Association (OFB) had been abolished and they had no choice but to pull Austria out of the World Cup. As there was no separate and sovereign country of Austria anymore, the footballers had to choose Germany as their national team if they wanted to carry on with their international career.
On the other hand, Germany themselves had qualified for the World Cup and coach Sepp Herberger was looking for a strong 22 man squad for the upcoming grand stage in France. The Nazi authority knew if they had any chance of performing well at the upcoming World Cup they need the help of the Austrian footballers, who were faster, stronger and technically superior to Germany's own. The Nazi Reichssportführer (sports leader) Hans von Tschammer und Osten admitted, "Viennese football art and the Viennese football school are unique in the world, and we would be fools to destroy it."
As there was a lot of Jewish influence in Austrian football, Tschammer's statement was a revelation of sorts. To observe what talent was on their hands, the Nazi regime decided to arrange an exhibition match between the two teams, Germany versus former Austria. The authority thought that this match would be a great propaganda tool for the Nazi regime to show the people that everything was normal and okay. Also, Herberger, the coach, wanted to consider some players to his German squad for the World Cup.
So the much anticipated and advertised match took place in Vienna. In the match, the professional and superior Austrian team, playing under their old name Ostmark, outplayed the Germans very easily. Though they missed some very easy chances in the first half they eventually won 2-0 thanks to two second-half goals from Matthias Sindelar and Karl Sesta.
However, a rare first-half poor performance from the Austrian side and specially Sindelar, who missed two sitters, provoked the idea that Ostmark was instructed to lose. Though there is very little evidence to support the theory, it was not unlikely as the Nazi regime was pushing for a more politically acceptable result of a draw.
The highlight of the match was Sindelar's celebration of his goal. It was reported that after scoring he danced in front of the crowd that included German officials. Also, the present crowd remember the second goal, which was from a free-kick, and was scored from almost the halfway line by Sesta. The German team avenged this defeat in a rematch by winning 9-1, but the locals hardly cared as they got their bragging rights in the first match.
After the two matches, as there was very little time to pick a team and train the players from two separate squads and gel into one, Herberger thought of taking two separate teams to the World Cup. His idea was that the Ostmark team could play under their former name and Germany would field a separate team.
But Tschammer insisted that there will be a single team consisting of German and Austrian players. Ultimately, nine of the final 22-man squad were Austrians, though it was far from a settled and well-constructed camp. The team entered the World Cup as Germany, amidst anti-Nazi and fascism protests in France. The lack of preparation and cohesiveness showed as they were knocked out in the first round after a defeat to Switzerland.
Interestingly, Austria's star forward Sindelar withdrew himself from selection, citing old age. It is true that he was 35 at the time, but he was superior to the German forwards and would have been an automatic choice of Herberger. Many thought Sindelar avoided being in a national team which he vehemently opposed. He retired from football and bought a Café and renamed it Sindelar Café.
With the World Cup over, the curtains fell on that wonderful Austrian national team and their members. The "Wunderteam" had died in 1938 and after a year so did Sindelar. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a broken chimney at his own home 18 days short of his 36th birthday.