“We must free our soccer youth from the shackles of playing to order, along rails as it were. We must give them ideas and encourage them to develop their own.”
That could be the words of any number of observers in the United Kingdom over the last few years, while watching the fluidity of movement of the Spanish or German national sides with envy.
Far from it being a frustrated English youth coach bemoaning the state of football in its home country, these were the thoughts of an Austrian journalist reflecting on one of the greatest teams ever to play the game.
His name was Willy Meisl, and he was writing over half a century ago, in 1955.
The team he was describing, that allowed their players such freedom of expression, was actually coached by his brother: a man who could be described as the father of modern football. That man was Hugo Meisl, a humble banker’s son from Bohemia who went on to revolutionise football and lay the foundations for the modern obsession with tiki-taka.
A life in finance never appealed to Meisl, who quickly established an interest in sport soon after moving to Vienna in 1893. He worked as an administrator for the Austrian Football Association and even refereed during the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
However, it soon became clear his talents lay elsewhere.
Later in 1912 he made his debut as manager of the Austro-Hungarian national side, beating Italy 3-1. A promising start was soon curtailed: within two years Europe was plunged into war. Football was suspended, and Meisl joined the Army.
By the time peace was declared, Meisl was back in charge: this time of an independent Austrian side. Here he set about inventing what we consider modern football.
At this time, international football had been around for nearly 50 years, with the home nations of England and Scotland being regarded as the best in the world.
However, their style had changed little since football’s inception: strength and power were highly valued, with long balls preferred over the intricate patterns we’re used to today.
Meisl rejected this theory, having fallen in love with the rapid passing and movement of a touring Rangers side he’d seen in 1905 in Vienna.
There was no revolution in tactics: a variation of the contemporary 2-3-5 formation was widespread throughout the era Meisl worked in, and no radical change was made there.
However, almost all of European football were obsessed with a target man, a strong centre forward to play aerial passes to. Meisl had other ideas, primary among those that possession of the ball gave a higher chance of winning games.
This didn’t mean Meisl’s Austria were an overnight success: a Southern Germany side hammered them 5-0 shortly after the war, forcing Meisl to reconsider his theory.
Ultimately, his ideology prevailed, and he set about creating one of the greatest sides the world has seen.
In the beginning his side were not as revolutionary as they would later become. For the first seven years of his reign he preferred to build the Austrian side around a centre forward called Josef Uridil, nicknamed ‘Tank’.
His physical, aggressive style was at odds with the flurry of passing Meisl aimed to provide, but until 1926 he was a mainstay of the team. It was in that year the final key to Meisl’s vision was found.
Instead of the battering presence of Uridil, a diminutive wisp of a forward was given his debut against Czechoslovakia that year, a game Austria won 2-1.
It was an inauspicious start for the Wiener-Amateur SV forward Matthias Sindelar, despite scoring in the game. It would take five years and considerable public pressure before he would become a regular in the side.
When it did happen, in 1931, the effects were astonishing. Meisl’s vision became reality.
Sindelar was a phenomenon, blessed with a close control and telepathic vision rarely seen before or since. His technical excellence was at odds with his physical presence: he was so slight his nickname was ‘Der Papierene’, The Paper-Man.
With Sindelar installed as a regular, Austria began bludgeoning all teams in their path. The first high-profile victims were a Scotland side still basking in a 5-1 victory at Wembley over England two years’ previously.
The ‘Wembley Wizards‘, as the Scots were known, had bamboozled the English with a fluid, short-passing game. However, the Scots were about to find out exactly how England felt that day.
Faced with a bewildering display of movement, short passing and the genius of Sindelar, Scotland had no answer. Austria inflicted their first defeat in Europe, by 5-0. Only heroics from the Scottish goalkeeper John Jackson prevented an embarrassment.
Austria would go on to remain unbeaten for their next eleven games, smashing in 44 goals in the process. Such was the aesthetic nature of this proto-tiki-taka is garnered its own name: The Danubian Whirl.
After a 14-game unbeaten sequence, including a 6-0 defeat of Germany, an 8-1 mullering of Switzerland and an 8-2 thumping of Hungary, this Austrian Wunderteam faced England at Wembley.
The English were still unbeaten at home to foreign opposition, but Meisl’s side would come closer than ever. The eventual 4-2 defeat was mitigated by the phenomenal football on display. The movement, the unpredictability and the invention led the Daily Mail to describe Austria as “a revelation”.
Despite the defeat, Meisl remained true to his ideology. They were the favourites to win the upcoming 1934 World Cup, not least because of beating hosts Italy 4-2 in Rome months before the tournament began.
However, after a lengthy domestic season and several international tours, added to Sindelar’s waning fitness, meant Meisl’s Austria became the original unfulfilled talent.
After qualifying, Austria overcame both France and the dangerous Hungarians. Controversy reigned in the semi-final against Italy though.
The match was played under terrible conditions, limiting Austria’s famed movement. Italy also employed some heavy-handed tactics in their 1-0 victory: several Austrians were hurt during the game, and the only goal occurred when goalkeeper Peter Platzer had been taken out by Italian forward Giuseppe Meazza.
Referee Ivan Eklind was criticised for a poor performance too, especially after he went on to referee the final that Mussolini’s Italy also won. Meisl’s team could only finish fourth, after a tame 3-2 defeat to Germany.
By the end of the tournament, Austria were beginning to decline. The great side that had thrilled Europe for so long was being overtaken by the World Champions Italy, coached by Meisl’s good friend Vittorio Pozzo.
One great achievement was left to conquer: to defeat England. Meisl craved it more than ever, especially after coming so close.
Two years after their World Cup disappointment, they got what they wanted.
In May 1936, England arrived in Vienna fully expecting a victory. However, just as in 1932 they were completely outclassed.
The 2-1 defeat confirmed the quality of Meisl’s coaching and his faith in the Danubian Whirl. They had beaten all of the top sides in Europe, and beaten them comfortably.
This game offered a sign for the future of English football as well. Sindelar, dropping deeper than contemporary centre forwards would dare to do, dragged England’s centre-half John Barker all over the pitch. The space created from his movements allowed Austria an even tighter grip on possession.
Seventeen years later, the same movement by Nándor Hidegkuti would unhinge Harry Johnston on the way to Hungary’s now-infamous 6-3 victory at Wembley. The warning signs for English football’s greatest watershed had first been witnessed thanks to Hugo Meisl’s pioneering vision.
Soon after this final triumph, Meisl’s Austria imploded. The Anschluss, Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, finished his national team as an entity: all Austrian players were absorbed into the German national side that would disappoint in that year’s World Cup.
The Mozart of football, Matthias Sindelar, refused to play for the new Germany side blaming his long-standing knee injury. Less than a year later, he was found dead in his Vienna apartment, the victim of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning.
Just a year before his team and his protégé would cease to be, Meisl was lost as well. He died suddenly from a heart attack in January 1937, taking with him one of the most forward-thinking football minds the world has ever seen.
His legacy cannot be overstated: he almost invented the idea of short passing and introduced it into Central Europe. A close associate of his, who worked with him on numerous occasions was Jimmy Hogan – more on him soon – who was almost entirely responsible for the Magical Magyars of the 1950s.
Another great team, the Dutch totaalvoetbal merchants of the 1970s also have their roots in Meisl’s Austria. They could be labelled the first team to try a version of Total Football. Ernst Happel grew up in Vienna surrounded by the Danubian Whirl, and the fluid systems he introduced to ADO Den Haag and Feyenoord led directly to Cruyff’s majestic Dutch side.
Cruyff himself continued his love of beautiful football when in charge of Barcelona in the early 1990s, his ‘Dream Team’ embodying all that Meisl dreamed of: aesthetic passing and constant movement that is still a yardstick on Catalunya.
Meisl is indirectly responsible for almost all of the teams we hold dear in football history, and yet his name is rarely mentioned in the pantheon of greatness. A man so far ahead of his time, his contribution to world football should
never be forgotten.