The Godfathers of Total Football

What if a certain Jimmy Hogan never took an interest in playing football or even coaching it? What if he never met Hugo Meisl? Without Hogan’s innovativeness we would likely not have had the Wunderteam or the Mighty Magyars. Without Jimmy Hogan football simply wouldn’t be the tactically diverse, organized and professional game it is today. Hogan epitomisez the developmental genesis of the game, the catalyst from which sprung the vast majority of modern ideas surrounding tactics, technique and physical conditioning that makes up the modern game.

The foundations of the Wunderteam were laid by the Englishman Jimmy Hogan, a follower of the Scottish school of football that advocated a style of play based on keeping possesion. Hogan began his work which reached its peak with the great Hungarian national team of the 1950s whom he “Taught how to play”. He was the first to create the principles, although not the term Total Football.

“We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters.” – Gustav Sebes, Hungary coach said this after Hungary’s demolition of England 6-3 that ended their run of 24 unbeaten games.

At the start of the 1930s in Austria, Hogan returned to work with his old friend Hugo Meisl (who was the head of the Austrian Football Association). Hogan helped Meisl put his vision into action. Hogan promoted a style that emphasized greater ball-control, quick passing, creativity, attacking freedom and better physical preparation. Football was to be a game for brains as well as muscles.

With the likes of players such as the great Matthias Sindelar on the side, the Austrians undoubtedly had the talent to achieve exceptional things however, seemed to suffer from a devastating dullness and lack of self-confidence. It was Hogan who implanted the tactical intelligence that the side was lacking, employing a defensive yet fluid version of the W-M formation that was given its first visit against England at Stamford Bridge on December 1932.

Austria may have lost that game 4-3, but the British press lauded about the visitors, flooding newspapers with words admiring the Austrian’s extraordinary passing football and evidently superior technical ability. It was a defeat, but the legend of Hogan and Meisl’s Austrian Wunderteam had been born.

Throughout the 1930s Austria thrilled Europe with the quick pass-and-move game that had been influenced by Hogan, a style which instigated an ideological shift across much of the continent and, alongside the work of Herbert Chapman in England, gave tactics a far more eminent standing within the game.

It was this team that would become the first of many to mesmerize audiences everywhere and define a generation in the 1930s much like Hungary did in the 1950s, the Netherlands in the 1970s and much later Spain. The Wunderteam played free flowing, short passing football. The kind of effective football that needed to be innovative, unpredictable, versatile and seemingly impossible to defend.

During the 1934 World Cup the Wunderteam were clear favorites to win it. With Hogan’s adaptation of the W-M which was founded on the freedom of movement and extra creativity given to the center-half, reached the semifinals and if it wasn't for a dubious goal conceded vs Italy they would have won the 1934 World Cup. Meisl’s team by all accounts played a beautiful brand of football that directed their collective artistry towards the end of victory in a manner never seen before.

The Team

Goalkeeper Rudi Hiden of Wiener was once the target of Arsenal, while half-back Walter Nausch was rated among the best in the world in his position. Center-half Josef “Pepi” Smistik of Rapid Vienna was well-known for his speed and skill to pick out a player with long-balls out of defense. And then there was Josef Bican, a Czech-Austrian who scored 800-plus goals in his career with, amongst others, Rapid Vienna, Admira and Slavia Prague. He managed a goal-a-game for Austria and later played for Czechoslavakia.

But the real jewel in Austria’s side was the legendary Matthias Sindelar, “Der Papierne” (the paper man), who’s feeble appearance belied a magnificent and talented player that was idolized by sporting Vienna. Sindelar was known as “The Mozart” of football for his exquisite dribbling, cerebral attacking and vision, decades later, he was nicknamed “The Pelé of the interwar years”. He became a figurehead of Austrian football, personifying the ideal false nine. He was also featured in advertisements and appeared in a film, people even wrote poems about him!

Following Sindelar’s death at 36 years old, Alfred Polgar wrote his obituary in Pariser Tageszeitung: “He would play football as a grandmaster plays chess; with a broad mental conception, calculating moves and countermoves in advance, always choosing the most promising of all possibilities. In a way he had brains in his legs, and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running. Sindelar’s shot hit the back of the net like the perfect punchline, the ending that made it possible to understand and appreciate the perfect composition of the story, the crowning of which it represented”

Sindelar was undoubtedly the main man, but accompanying him were Anton Schall, Karl Zischek, Franz Wagner and Franz Cisar. This set of players had the unique technique of receiving and accurately passing the ball with a single touch. Making the small nation in Central Europe one of the most feared powerhouses during that period.

They were unbeatable for nearly 2 years. Between April 1931 and December 1932 they played 12 matches against the best in Europe. Won 10 of them, drew 2 and scored 49 goals. Playing in a 2-3-5 formation with an elegant attacking center-half in Josef Smistik and an unorthodox center-forward who encouraged such fluidity that their system became known as “The Danubian Whirl”. That Austrian team of the early 1930s can be ranked among the best national sides not to have been crowned World Cup winners.