The 1938 Football Cup in France was probably one of the least interesting ones in terms of sports, but it went down in history due to a horrible tragedy.
Every football Cup has the ability to get most of the world excited for one month every four years. There’s no doubt that it’s a huge international event that captures people’s attention, even when their teams aren’t playing. However, it’s not just a month of football passion and sports, it's also a historical moment that happens every four years. Now, when I talk about history, I’m not only talking about those glorious moments of past Cups, like Maradona’s famous “Hand of God,” or the amazing performances by Pelé or Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m talking about world history.
We all know that the first half of the twentieth century was particularly busy, violent, and agitated with two world wars, several civil wars, and a revolution that shaped what world politics would be like during the remaining half of the century. Well, even during these times, sporting events were highly encouraged and even used for propaganda issues by many countries, and in this case, the 1938 Football Cup in France was the newly formed Nazi regime’s opportunity to vindicate their image after the huge humiliation they experienced two years earlier at the Olympic Games in Berlin. At those Games, Hitler wanted to show the world that the Germans were superior in all ways, including sports and physical ability. His plans failed, of course, when Jesse Owens, an African-American got a gold medal. Long story short, for Hitler, this Cup was his chance to prove his point.
Now, before we get to that, let’s put the Cup in context. The first controversy arose when they announced that the Cup would take place in France. At the time, it was agreed that these events would alternate host countries between Europe and America. The previous Cup took place in Italy in 1934, giving Mussolini the joy of seeing his fascist country as the top of the tournament. Under that premise, it was said that the 1938 Football Cup was going to be hosted by Argentina, so when the new venue was announced, people in America got really mad. It’s reported that many violent riots took place in Argentina and Uruguay by people protesting the new decision, and as a consequence, both countries, who had classified, withdrew from the tournament.
But they weren’t the only ones out of the Cup. Spain was in the midst of a civil war, so they obviously chose not to participate. The federation even offered England a place in the Cup, but they rejected it because of the fascist countries participating. But perhaps the most dramatic withdrawal was that of Austria. At the time, Austria was considered to be the strongest team in the world to the point that they were called the “Wunderteam.” However, if you remember your history lessons, Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 in what’s known as the “Anschluss.” It’s said that, under Hitler’s orders, the Austrian team was offered to play for Germany, knowing that this could give them a huge advantage. However, before that, they decided to organize a match in Vienna to show how that annexation was “friendly” and that the mixed team would play like brothers. The Austrian leader, Matthias Sindelar, who was the star of the team (often called the “Mozart of football” or the “Paperman” due to his light but decisive movements), was known to be patriotic, so he negotiated so that they would be able to play for the last time with their national shirts and as the Austrian team. The Germans agreed.
The remaining members of the Austrian Football Federation had advised the remaining players (of course, all the Jewish players had been kicked out of the team) to keep a low-key image to avoid any problems. At the same time, they were told by the German federation that they had to play terribly so that Germany would win the match. However, Sindelar, who had very strong ideals, wasn’t willing to lose his dignity. It’s said that during the first half of the match the Austrians were trying really hard not to score, but after Sindelar talked to the team, they came out for the second half as strong as ever. Austria won their last match 2-0, which made a lot of Germans really angry, and as if that wasn’t enough humiliation, after his second goal, Sindelar even dared to run towards the box where all the Nazi officials were and mockingly waltzed (a symbol of patriotism) for them. This attitude put Sindelar in the Nazi list of national threats.
Then, by the time he was supposed to join his new team, he publicly announced that his career in football had ended and that he wanted to retire. He decided to buy a café owned by one of his Jewish friends, so that he and his family could flee the country. He settled into a relatively quiet life, just hanging out and minding his business, which made the Nazis even angrier. He was dead only ten months after the Vienna match.
In January 1939, he was found dead with his girlfriend at his apartment. Official reports claimed that they died poisoned by a blocked heater in his poorly ventilated place. However, people didn’t really buy that story, and to this day it’s thought that they were killed by the German secret police for his many taunts and humiliations. In the last months of his life, he knew that he was under Gestapo surveillance, but he still maintained public his relationship with his Jewish friends and helped them get out of the country, even giving them money to survive after the Nazis had taken their properties away. When you think about it, it’s not that surprising that he was murdered.
The actual Cup, however, was completely unremarkable, but Matthias Sindelar’s story will definitely live on in the minds of many for years to come.
Take a look at these: