Austria had a team whose quality and verve sent shockwaves throughout Europe in the 1930s. Wunderteam founder Hugo Meisl is often compared to the great Hungarian team of 1950 and the great Brazilian team of 1970 as the father of this Wunderteam.
As the Austrian Football Association’s general secretary during the 1920s and 1930s and as its coach at the 1934 FIFA World Cup, the renowned innovator and connoisseur were one of the game’s significant authorities of his time.
Who Is Hugo Meisl?
Meisl was born in Vienna to a wealthy family and studied at a commercial academy. In his twenties, he gained employment as a bank clerk.
The young Meisl, however, had a passion for soccer. As a result, he sacrificed a lucrative banking career to dedicate himself to perfecting the art and building much-needed infrastructure for the sport. As a result of his knowledge, he earned a reputation as an expert in his field.
As General Secretary of the Austrian Football Association, Meisl was a driving force in making football a professional sport in Austria and throughout Europe. As one of the most shrewd experts in the burgeoning international game, he went on to invent the Mitropa Cup, which went on to evolve into the European Champions Cup.
The most outstanding achievement of Meisl was coaching the fabled ‘Wunderteam’ during the 1930s. Hugo Meisl debuted as national coach of the Alpine Republic on 22 December 1912, when he was just 31 years old. He led his side to a 3-1 victory against bitter rivals Italy in Genoa.
Before serving in the First World War, Meisl commanded the national team for just under two years. After returning to Germany after the war, Heinrich Retschury took over, but Meisl continued to supervise the team and assumed sole control in early 1919.
As a result of the war, soccer experienced a golden age, and Meisl was among those advocating professionalization. During his time as General Secretary, he also played a major role in building the national team. Along with his English friend Jimmy Hogan, who is widely credited with bringing what has then been described as “Scottish-style” football to Europe. Hugo Meisl significantly influenced the Austrians of the 1930s and Hungary’s Magical Magyars of the 1950s with his ‘keep-it-on-the-carpet’ philosophy of playing well-controlled and technically.
Pre-World War Two, the Austrian Wunderteam was regarded as Europe’s most outstanding team. Against Czechoslovakia on 12 April 1931, Austria won 2-1, marking the beginning of an unbeaten run of fourteen matches, consisting of eleven victories and three draws.
Among the remarkable results was the 6-0 rout in Berlin and the 5-0 rout at Vienna of Germany. On the other hand, Scotland tasted defeat for the first time on the continent when they lost 5-0 in Vienna on 16 May 1931, traditionally regarded as the high point of the run. Switzerland also suffered an 8-1 defeat in Basel, while Hungary battled through an 8-2 loss.
A member of Meisl’s team on the pitch was Matthias Sindelar, a brilliant playmaker and one of the best soccer players of his generation. As the free-spirited soul of this well-drilled squad, Sindelar’s flamboyant, free-spirited nature earned him the nicknames of der Papierene for his thin, delicate stature and ‘The Mozart of Football’ for his virtuosity.
For the first time since the game’s invention, the English defeated Meisl’s men on 7 December 1932. However, despite their defeat, the continental team’s talent and will were clearly evident even in defeat at London’s Stamford Bridge.
In 1934, Austria lost just one more game before reaching the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup. In the 31 games played from April 1931 to June 1934, the Wunderteam lost just three games out of 31 and scored 101 goals.
1934 World Cup
The 1934 FIFA World Cup was to be Austria’s golden age. However, on the eve of the event, the Wunderteam, despite having passed their peak, crushed the hosts 4-2 in a friendly at the newly constructed Stadio Mussolini in Turin.
The Meisl team entered the World Cup tournament with high expectations following their remarkable run of form. However, the competition proved to be a misfortune for all involved.
Having defeated France 3-2 in extra time in Turin, Austria beat Hungary 2-1 in Bologna to advance to the semi-finals at the San Siro stadium in Milan, where they will face hosts Italy. As a result of the fierce encounter with Hungary, Hugo Meisl called it ‘a brawl, not a football game,’ and his team would later regret the lingering injuries they suffered.
When Meisl remarked, “We have no chance,” before the semi-final against Italy, who were coached by an old friend and fellow innovator Vittorio Pozzo, the heavens suddenly opened. A deluge of rain completely swept the pitch. The weather conditions, as well as the loss of Austria’s dynamo Johann Horvath, were crushing blows for the tired Austrians who loved playing on grass.
However, despite Austria offering its share of chances, Juventus goalkeeper Giampiero Combi saved nearly two dozen through the closing stages. Enrico Guaita’s 10th-minute goal held up 1-0, and the Wunderteam would not go down in FIFA World Cup history.
At the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Austria reached the final two years later. However, Italy once again denied Meisl and his men. As of today, Austria has only ever reached the final of a major international tournament once, which ended in a 1-2 defeat.
Hugo Meisl sat on the Austrian bench for the last time on 24 January 1937. With a 2-1 win in Paris, his team provided him with a fitting farewell. Unfortunately, Hugo Meisl died just a few weeks later, at the age of 55.
Despite all the success he achieved, no Austrian coach has been able to duplicate it, and the subsequent German Anschluss destroyed much of his legacy. Thus, the beautiful tale of Vienna ended tragically.
In his native England, Jimmy Hogan’s tactical ideas about soccer were not well received. However, he was recognized as a quality coach and expert tactician throughout Austria, Hungary, and Germany. Hugo Meisl was the first to embrace Hogan’s shortish passing style.
In a 2-3-5 ‘W-M’ formation, Meisl and Hogan added an unprecedented emphasis to the creative center half. Austria’s Wunderteam acted as a bridge between Herbert Chapman and Jimmy Hogan’s era from England and Vittorio Pozzo’s two-time World Cup champion Italy.
Hugo Meisl Coaching Career
Fourth place at the 1934 FIFA World Cup Italy
Silver medalist at the 1936 Olympic Football Tournament
1900-1905: Vienna Cricket and Football Club
Main Image: Howler