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Jul 18, 2003

The 'Paper Man' mystery

My last column ("Totalitarian Football") was met with an impressive response. I hope that was because it dealt with an interesting topic, and not just because nothing gets you through the off-season quite like a few tales about the war years.

Be that as it may, some people remarked that I should have mentioned the case of Matthias Sindelar.

He was in all likelihood Austria's greatest-ever footballer, they rightly pointed out. He was not exactly enamoured of Germans and resented the fact they were suddenly strutting about the streets of his beloved Vienna, they said - Also rightly.

And in one of football history's great moments of tragedy, he was either murdered by the Nazis or committed suicide out of desperation, they added.

Hm. That last bit made me wonder. On January 23, 1939, Sindelar's good friend Gustav Hartmann, a dyer by trade, had the door to a flat in Vienna's Annagasse broken open, looking for Sindelar. He found the footballer lying on the bed, naked and dead. Next to him was his girl-friend, unconscious but already beyond hope.

Barely 48 hours later, the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung said that 'everything points towards this great man having become the victim of murder through poisoning.'

The poet Friedrich Torberg offered another theory in a poem that claimed Sindelar killed himself because he felt 'disowned' on account of 'the new order'.

In 1994, the Cassell Soccer Companion had an entry on Sindelar that read: 'He was of Jewish descent, and committed suicide by gassing himself after the Nazis took over.'

Five years later, a German book on football under the Nazis added yet another angle by hinting the problem may have been that 'Sindelar's girl-friend was a Jew.'

There you go. More than 64 years have passed since Sindelar's death, yet rumours and myths persist to this day. And you know what? It's all rubbish.

Oh, I don't pretend to know exactly what happened and how, but there's at least a few facts that we know, and most of them stand in the way of all those conspiracy theories.

To start at the back, Sindelar's partner was not Jewish. She was an Italian catholic by the name of Camilla Castagnola, ten years older than the Austrian. She had just become the co-owner of a bar (which, incidentally, is something she wouldn't have been allowed to do if she had been Jewish) and had little to fear from the Nazis - she was from the country run by Hitler's ally Mussolini.

Anyway, even if the new German masters had for whatever obscure reason decided to persecute her, it seems silly to suggest Sindelar would have agreed to a suicide pact. He had known this woman for all of ten days when both died.

On to the man himself.

Despite David Pickering's words in the Soccer Companion, Sindelar was not Jewish, either. He was born in 1903 in Moravia, and while it is true that many Jews shared the Sindelars' fate in that they left Moravia around this time to live in Vienna's shabby working-class district (strangely called Favoriten), the future footballer's family was catholic through and through.

It's true, though, that the Nazis felt Sindelar was a bit, er, suspect. His heart belonged to the Viennese club Austria, which was often referred to as a 'Jews' club', and many of Sindelar's team-mates or friends had to seek shelter when the Nazis crept in because of their descent or faith.

What's more, Sindelar had hemmed and hawed when the German national manager Sepp Herberger asked him to play for the new Austrian/German team, until Herbeger understood and retreated, full of both respect and regret.

But it's not as if Sindelar suffered under the Nazis, let alone openly resisted them.

In September of 1938, less than five months before his death, he took over a café from a dispossessed Jew named Leopold Drill. (Fairness dictates we mention that Sindelar did not further exploit Drill's predicament. He paid the full price, which was unusual.) This suggests he was looking for a new livelihood and finishing with the football part of his life.

While he was certainly unhappy to leave the game behind, this was not exclusively due to the Germans running Austrian football. Sindelar, almost 36, was simply getting old. And, what's more, the glory days of the Wunderteam he had led were coming to an end for reasons other than politics.

In 1932, Sindelar had scored what the English press called 'the goal of the century in the match of the century,' when Austria narrowly lost to England.

The player known as the 'Paper Man', for his frail appearance, had netted his side's second after fooling two defenders with a step-over - but such beauty was becoming a thing of the past.

The WM formation was replacing the daring 2-3-5, and the stifling 'Swiss bolt' tactics had been introduced. (By an Austrian, no less: Karl Rappan.) Sindelar's game was dying.

In the early hours of January 22, Sindelar visited Castagnola in her flat. They had sex, drank liqueur, then fell asleep. All the while, the gas heater in the flat was slowly emanating toxic fumes.

This fact seems beyond doubt, as one of the house's two chimneys was defective, which we know because Castagnola's neighbours had complained of symptoms of poisoning during the preceding week.

What we don't know is why the chimney sweep was so slow in doing something about this and why he didn't inform Castagnola. Or maybe he did and she underestimated the danger.

There's also quite a few other details we know that all point towards an accident, despite the claim that the police reports have mysteriously disappeared.

Well, they haven't. What has disappeared is the chimney sweep's account, which he put to paper shortly before his death and long after Sindelar's. But that's hardly enough to rest a murder/suicide case on.

Let the man, and the woman, rest in peace.


  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, published by WSC Books, is available through Sportsbooksdirect.

  • Any thoughts? Email us