Coffee Houses of Vienna: Birthplace of Intelligent Football

In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without form. Then came the Victorians, who codified it, and after them the theorists, who analysed it. It was the late 1920s that tactics in anything resembling a modern sense came to be recognised or discussed, but as early as the 1870s there was an acknowledgement that the arrangement of players on the pitch made a significant difference to the way the game was played. In its earliest form, though, football knew nothing of such sophistication, and so it continued for around half a century.


For the importance of tactics fully to be realised, the game had to be taken up by a social class that instinctively theorised and deconstructed, that was as comfortable with planning in the abstract as it was with reacting on the field and, crucially, that suffered none of the distrust of intellectualism that was to be found in Britain. That happened in central Europe between the wars. What was demonstrated by the Uruguayans and Argentinians was explained by largely Jewish section of the Austrian and Hungarian bourgeoisie.


Football boomed in Austria in the twenties, with the establishment of a two-tier professional league in 1924. That November the Neues Wiener Journal asked, “Where else can you see at least 40-50,000 spectators gathering Sunday after Sunday at all the sports stadiums, rain or shine? Where else is a majority of the population so interested in the results of games that in the evening you can hear almost every other person talking about the results of the league matches and the club prospects for the coming games?” The answer was easy: Britain aside, nowhere else in Europe.


But where in Britain the discussion of games took place in the pub, in Austria it took place in the coffee house. In Britain football had begun as a pastime of the public schools, but by the 1930s it had become a resolutely working-class sport; in central Europe, it had followed a more complex arc, introduced by the Anglophile upper middle classes, rapidly adopted by the working classes, and then, although the majority of the players remained working class, seized upon by intellectuals.

Football in central Europe was an almost entirely urban phenomenon, centred around Vienna, Budapest and Prague, and it was in those cities that coffee-house culture was at its strongest. The coffee house flourished towards the end of the Habsburg Empire, becoming a public salon, a place where men and women of all classes mingled, but which became particularly noted for its artistic, bohemian aspect. People would read the newspapers there; pick up mail and laundry; play cards and chess. Political candidates used them as venues for meetings and debates, while intellectuals and their acolytes would discuss the great affairs of the day: art, literature, drama and, increasingly in the twenties, football.


Each club had its own cafê, where players, supporters, directors and writers would mix. Fans of Austria Vienna, for instance, met in the Cafê Parsifal; Rapid fans in the Cafê Holub. The hub of the football scene in the inter-war years, though, was the Ring Cafê. It had been the hang-out of the anglophile cricket community, but by 1930 it was the centre of the broader football community. It was, according to a piece written in Welt am Montag after the war, “A kind of revolutionary parliament of the friends and fanatics of football; one-sided club interest could not prevail because just about every Viennese club was present.”


The impact of football on the wider culture is made clear by the career of the Rapid centre-forward Josef Uridil. He came from the suburbs in the Vienna of the time edgy, working-class districts, and his robust style of play was celebrated as exemplifying the proletarian roots of the club. He was the first football hero of the coffee house, and, in 1922, became the subject of a song by the noted cabaret artist Hermann Leopoldi, Heute spielt der Uridil, which was so successful that it spread his fame even to those with no interest in football. He began advertising a range of products from soap to fruit juice and, by February 1924, he was appearing at a music hall while at the same time Pflicht und Ehre, a film in which he appeared as himself, was showing in cinemas.


It was into that environment that Hugo Meisl’s Wunderteam exploded. The trend through the late twenties was upward and, despite a poor start, they narrowly missed out on the inaugural Dr Gerö Cup, a thirty-month league tournament also featuring Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland. After losing three of their opening four games, they hammered Hungary 5-1 and the eventual winners Italy 3-0, finishing runners-up by a point. In the Ring, they weren’t satisfied, and agitated for the selection of Matthias Sindelar, a gifted, almost cerebral, forward from Austria Vienna, a club strongly associated with the Jewish bourgeoisie.


He was a new style of centre-forward, a player of such slight stature that he was nicknamed Der Papierene or 'the Paper-man'. There was an air of flimsy genius about him that led writers to compare his creativity to theirs: a fine sense of timing and of drama, a flair for both the spontaneous and the well-crafted. In his 1978 collection Die Erben der Tante Jolesch, Friedrich Torberg, one of the foremost of the coffee-house writers, wrote that: “He was endowed with such an unbelievable wealth of variations and ideas that one could never really be sure which manner of play was to be expected. He had no system, to say nothing of a set pattern. He just had a genius.”


For the Wunderteam, that was just the beginning. Playing a traditional 2-3-5 with an elegant attacking centre-half in Josef Smistik, but with an unorthodox centre-forward who encouraged such fluidity that their system became known as “Danubian Whirl.” Austria won nine and drew two of their next eleven games, scoring forty-four goals and winning the second edition of the Dr Gerö Cup in the process. The coffee houses were jubilant: their way of doing things had prevailed, largely because of Sindelar, a player who was, to their self-romanticising eye, the coffee house made flesh.


The modern way of understanding and discussing the game was invented in the coffee houses of Vienna.


This is an extract from Jonathan Wilson's "Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics"