Love Letters to the European Union: Oh, Vienna

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. First up it’s Austria, taking us way back to the ’30s and ’40s. 

 

The Player: Franz Binder

Binder

When discussing the great Austrian players, you’ll rarely get past the Wunderteam of the 1930s. Hugo Meisl’s side were considered one of the best in the world, enjoying an unbeaten streak of fourteen games at the beginning of the decade, and heading to the 1934 World Cup as favourites to lift the trophy. After the death of Meisl in 1937 and the Anschluss shortly afterwards, however, Austria’s influence on world football as a nation dwindled. The team representing Nazi Germany at the 1938 World Cup drafted in a number of Austria’s best players, but understandable friction in the team camp saw them crash out in the first round to Switzerland. Meanwhile, Austrian club sides  were invited to compete in the German Football Championship, a precursor to the Bundesliga before the Deutscher Fussball Bund took a leap and allowed professionals in the sport. In the background throughout all of this was Franz Binder, the greatest striker you’ve probably never heard of.

Born in St Polter in 1911, Binder began his footballing career at local side Sturm 19 St Pölten aged 15 and then spent his entire professional club career with Rapid Vienna, already the most decorated club in Austria by the time Binder joined in 1930 aged 19, but about to embark on a relatively barren run of success in the 1930s. Despite the lack of trophies, Binder quickly became a key first team player for Rapid, notching up an impressive scoring tally across twenty years, averaging 1.1 goals per game and landing the title of Austrian Top Goalscorer three times. Though only a bit part player for the national team, Binder would also notch 16 goals in 19 appearances for Austria including two on his debut against Belgium, as well as 10 in 9 for Germany during the second world war. At 6’3”, ‘Bimbo’ was the archetypal target man, able to wrestle off opposition defenders with his upper body strength, use his considerable height to plunder in headers, and possessed a lethal shot, rumoured to have torn holes in any goal nets unfortunate enough to get in the way. Despite his goalscoring exploits in the Austria league, his most famous moment came in the 1941 season, as Rapid Vienna fought their way to the final of the German Championship, and faced off against Schalke 04.

Against the heavily decorated side from Gelsenkirchen, containing the fearsome striker Ernst Kuzorra and national team ‘keeper Hans Klodt, Rapid Vienna wilted in the first half. A packed Olympiastadion in Berlin saw Heinz Hinz and Hermann Eppenhoff put Schalke two up within the first ten minutes, and just shy of the hour mark Hinz added a third that looked to have guaranteed a sixth championship for Otto Faist’s side. Two minutes later Georg Schors changed the scored on the doors to 3-1, and then Binder, as so often he did throughout his career, grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. Seven minutes after Eppenhoff had given Schalke a seemingly unassailable lead, Rapid were level, as Binder scored to in three minutes to make it 3-3. The striker then completed his hat-trick with nineteen minutes to go, marking one of the greatest comebacks  in football history, and making Rapid Vienna the last Austrian side to become German champions.

Sadly Binder’s peak years fell during the war, and he found  himself serving on the frontline and used on propaganda posters by the Nazis. The frontman would return to Rapid Vienna in 1945 and continue his own personal vendetta against the defences of Austria’s club sides, already marked out as one of the best strikers in the world. A year later, and with his playing career winding down, Binder became player-manager at Rapid, and would win two league championships before travelling around Europe for jobs with FC Nurnberg and PSV Eindhoven. A second stint in charge of Rapid would reap another league title, and Binder retired in 1976 having enjoyed an illustrious career, blighted by war.

 

The Game: Austria 3-2 France, 1934

AUSFRA2

That fourteen match run that Meisl’s Wunderteam embarked on in the early ’30s wasn’t purely down to grit, steel and determination, but rather a football awakening the likes of which the world had never seen. With Matias Sindelaar, the darling of the intelligista, playing in a prototype false nine role in Meisl’s 2-3-5 system, Austria blew teams away one-by-one, hitting Germany for six in Berlin and knocking eight past both Switzerland and Hungary. Even England, considered by many as the best team in the world, were given a scare when they invited Austria to play an exhibition game at Stamford Bridge. Though the 4-3 defeat ended Austria’s run, it did further enhance their reputation on the world stage, and with the English FA still boycotting the World Cup, Austria travelled to Italy confident of becoming the second winners of the tournament. If they were to win it, however, they’d have to do it the hard way, as the draw pitted them against a decent France side in the first round.

The two sides had met in Paris a year prior to the tournament, with Meisl’s team running out 4-0 winners, but France were no mugs, having hit England for five in 1932, and recorded some decent results against fellow European big-hitters. Their last warm-up game before the tournament had offered a warning to Austria, as Rouen striker Jean Nicolas hit a hat-trick in Amsterdam to help his side to a 5-4 victory over the Netherlands. Whatever happened, it was never likely to be a quiet afternoon for the Wunderteam’s backline. Predictably, it was Nicolas that opened the scoring at the Stadio Benito Mussolini in Turin, as France looked to catch Austria cold in the opening twenty minutes, using their physicality in the face of the opposition’s technical ability. Parity was restored, of course, by Sindelaar on the stroke of half-time. An attritional second half saw the French side frustrate Austria’s natural passing game, with service to Sindelaar falling short in the face of staunch defending. A full-time score of 1-1 saw football history made, as Extra Time was brought into play for the first time. With France’s reliance on fitness and strength seeing them begin to flag, Austria took full advantage in the extra half an hour of play, and goals from Tony Schall and Josef Bican in the first period put Meisl’s team in a commanding position to win the tie. A late penalty from Georges Verriest threatened to spark a late French comeback, but Austria held out to book their place in the quarter finals.

Having made their name in beautiful victory, the Wunderteam’s ability to grind out a win against a side unwilling to let them play their brand of free-flowing football suggested that perhaps Austria had all the tools necessary to go on and win the tournament. A far more straightforward victory over Hungary in the next round, sealed by goals from Johann Horvath and Karl Zischek set up a date with the hosts in the semi-final, but sometimes there are things even skill and determination cannot overcome. The Italians’ performance at the San Siro was brutal and bruising, the complete antithesis to Meisl’s gameplan, and the most effective way of stopping the Austrian craft. With Mussolini watching on from the stands, Italy’s players (and the naturalised Argentinian Luis Monti in particular) were free to tackle hard and without consequence. The man-marking job by Monti on Sindelaar effectively ruled the maestro out of the game, and the result was decided thanks to Giuseppe Meazza’s robust challenge on goalkeeper Peter Platzer which led to the Austrian stopper spilling a cross at the feet of Enrique Guaita to fire home the only goal of the game after nineteen minutes. Defeated but not disgraced, this would be Austria’s last World Cup appearance for twenty years.

In hindsight it could be said that by the time the 1934 World Cup had rolled round the Wunderteam were just about past their peak. Sindelaar and Horvath were over thirty and, besides the emerging talent of Bican, few other members of the team would go on to replicate their success from the beginning of the decade. The death of Meisl in 1937 all but spelled the end of Austria’s golden period in football, but for half a decade in the 1930s, they were one of the best teams in the world.

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