Global tournaments like the World Cup are never free of politics and that was especially true in 1938 during the run-up to World War II when the fascist leaders of Germany and Italy were eager to put their stamp on the final outcome. But the Germans may have made a miscalculation in forcing five Austrian starters to play for their team after Germany had invaded and annexed Austria three months before the start of the games.

Adolf Hitler was hoping for a bit of revenge after losing the propaganda battle at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Those games were supposed to be a showcase for the Nazi regime and the athletic superiority of the Aryan race. American Jesse Owens, a black sprinter, stole the show with four gold medals, and Germany’s Olympic soccer team was upset by Norway.

But when five members of the German team pulled on their jerseys for their first-round match against Switzerland on June 9, 1938, they may have had something else on their minds besides the final score. These were the starters from Austria’s national squad known as the Wunderteam (“Wonder Team”) of the 1930s. Earlier in the decade, Austria trounced Germany several times. In fact, Austria made the World Cup semifinal in 1934, losing 1-0 against Italy in a game marred by biased refereeing and outright match-fixing led by Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

Austrian Wunderteam
The Austrian “Wunderteam” seen in 1932. (Credit: Imagno/Getty Images)

On the eve of their return, and despite having qualified, the Austrian squad was forced to pull out of the World Cup tournament. Hitler’s army had invaded Austria during the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria, just three months earlier. As a result, Jews were kicked off the Austrian soccer program and players were conscripted onto the German team.

Austria’s star forward and the nation’s greatest player, Matthias Sindelar, refused to join the Germans, claiming he was too old at 35. But Sindelar was also an Austrian patriot and didn’t support the Nazi occupation. The other Austrian players, however, soon found themselves playing for an occupying nation on the World Cup stage, wearing the Nazi symbol on their uniforms.

The German/Austrian team took the field at the Parc des Princes field in Paris before a rowdy bottle-throwing crowd on June 8. The Nazi regime was menacing its neighbors, and war was less than 18 months away.

Germany was facing Switzerland for the second time in two weeks. The first match ended in a 1-1 draw, so under the rules at the time, the two squads had a “replay” to see who would move on to the second round.

Germany struck first in the eighth minute with a score by young Austrian forward William Hahnemannand it seemed like the Germans would claim victory after an own goal in the 22nd minute by Switzerland. But the tide turned in the second half, and Switzerland scored four straight goals winning 4-2.

1938 World Cup
Swiss forward Lauro Amado (center, dark jersey) trying to kick the ball past German goalkeeper Rudi Raftl during the World Cup second preliminary match on June 9, 1938. (Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

German coach Sepp Herberger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, was furious and blamed the defeat on a losing attitude by his Austrian players. It remains Germany’s earliest exit from the World Cup since it began in 1930.

“Did they lose on purpose? There’s no way to know that, but they definitely did not play the way they could have played,” says Stanislao Pugliese professor of history at Hofstra University and co-author ofFootball and the Boundaries of History: Critical Studies in Soccerwith Brenda Elsey.

Puglisese noted that the fascist regimes of both Germany and Italy were hoping for victory in the 1938 World Cup. Italy’s Benito Mussolini was trying for a second trophy after hosting (and winning) the tournament in 1934. Multiple investigations found that Mussolini had controlled referees during that earlier event, according to the 2003 BBC documentary “Fascism and Football.” For the second time in a row, Italy won although, Puglisese says that by 1938, Italy’s team was good enough to win without the help of bribery and intimidation of referees. Italy’s victory and Germany’s defeat reflected the image of the regime, not just the players on the field.

“These totalitarian regimes looked at sporting events in a different way,” Pugliese said. “Everything had to be under the aegis of the government, sports was no different.”

As for Sindelar, the Austrian star known as “The Paperman” for his delicate build, his decision to skip the World Cup might have cost him his life. In January 1939, Sindelar and his girlfriend were found dead in their Vienna apartment from carbon monoxide poisoning. Some of his friends speculated that he died at the hands of the German secret police, according to the BBC film. But other soccer commentators believe that Sindelar’s and his girlfriend’s death was a simple accident, the result of a fumes from a blocked heater in a poorly-maintained apartment.

“Sport has never been free of politics,” Pugliese said. “We have this idealistic fantasy, that it would be nice to separate them, but it will never happen.”

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