It's a question so often posed in the realm of sports. What if a certain player wasn't suspended, traded or hurt? What if a controversial call went another way? What if a coach had called a different play? What if a certain matchup had occurred at a different time?
That last question, above the others, has piqued our interest. In light of Floyd Mayweather finally facing Manny Pacquiao this Saturday in Las Vegas, years after both boxing greats were widely considered to be at their absolute best, it got us wondering: What if two soccer titans of their era who never got the chance to meet at their peaks actually did? All week in the build-up to Mayweather-Pacquiao, Planet Fútbol will take a historical deep dive into some of the greatest teams in soccer history, why they ultimately never got the chance to meet their equals and what might have happened if they had.
First up: the Uruguay and Austria national teams of the early 1930s.
The first great superpower of football as a world game was Uruguay, which won the football competition at the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games and then took the first World Cup on its home soil in 1930. Re-mastered footage from 1930 reveals a startling modernity to their play: football was less frenetic then, but the one-touch passing and the fluidity generated by rolling the ball into space differs only in pace from the fundamentals of the 21st-century game.
“The principal quality of the victors was a marvelous virtuosity in receiving the ball, controlling it and using it,” wrote Gabriel Hanot, who would go on to edit L’Équipe but was then coming to the end of a distinguished playing career. “They have such a complete technique that they also have the necessary leisure to note the position of partners and teammates. They do not stand still waiting for a pass. They are on the move, away from markers, to make it easy for their teammates.”
Uruguay traveled to Paris for the 1924 Olympics in steerage and played a series of friendlies to pay their way. They were unknowns when they arrived but by the time they went home they had redefined football and were attracting huge crowds. For the Olympic final in Amsterdam in 1928, there were more than 250,000 applications for the 40,000 tickets available.
The team remained relatively stable through the 20s. Jose Nasazzi, the captain, was a tough and commanding right back who would drop behind the line of the defense as a proto-sweeper. Pedro Cea was a goalscoring inside-left, while Hector Scarone would create the play from inside-right. The center forward, Hector Castro, a carpenter who had lost an arm to a buzzsaw accident, was a clinical finisher. Uruguay was a skillful, technically gifted side but it also had a hard edge, a team capable of fine football but more than happy to mix it up if it had to.
Austrian football had been improving steadily through the late 1920s, but it was the emergence of the center forward Matthias Sindelar–The Paper Man, as he was nicknamed for his slight build–that turned a good national side into a great one. Hugo Meisl, the national team coach, was skeptical: he was a conservative, his thinking shaped by observation of the British game and, although he favored a passing approach, he also believed a center forward needed to be big and strong, a target man who could win headers.
Finally, in 1931, Meisl succumbed to the pressure from the coffee-house intellectuals and journalists who had promoted Sindelar and installed him as a fixture in the team. The effects were extraordinary.
On May 16, 1931, Austria thrashed Scotland 5-0. The Scotish, admittedly without any Rangers or Celtic players, fielded seven debutants and lost Daniel Liddle to an early injury, while Colin McNab played on as a virtual passenger after suffering a blow to the head toward the end of the first half, but the Daily Record was in no doubt what it had witnessed: "Outclassed!" it roared. "There can be no excuses." Only the heroics of John Jackson, the goalkeeper, prevented an even greater humiliation.
For the Wunderteam, that was just the beginning. Playing a traditional 2-3-5 with an elegant attacking center half in Josef Smistik–but with an unorthodox center forward who encouraged such fluidity that their system became known as ‘the Danubian Whirl’–Austria won nine and drew two of its 11 games, scoring 44 goals and winning the second edition of the Dr. Gerö Cup, a tournament for central European teams, in the process.
In goal there was the brilliant Rudi Hiden, a former baker, at inside-left, Hans Horvath linked in mesmerizing combinations with Sindelar, while Anton Schall offered pace and predatory finishing.
The coffee houses were jubilant: their way of doing things had prevailed, largely because of Sindelar, a player who was, to their self-romanticizing eye, the coffee-house-made flesh.
“He would play football as a grandmaster plays chess: with a broad mental conception, calculating moves and counter-moves in advance, always choosing the most promising of all possibilities,” wrote the theatre critic Alfred Polgar. “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.”
WHY THEY NEVER MET
It could be argued that Uruguay’s peak came two or three years before the Wunderteam was at its best, and so the two could never have played each other with each absolutely in full flow, but logistics, anyway, mitigated against a game.
Austria didn’t travel to Uruguay for the 1930 World Cup, for reasons of finance and lack of interest as much as anything.
Uruguay didn’t travel for the 1934 tournament, perhaps as revenge for the way so many European nations had snubbed it four years earlier or possibly because its team had little chance of winning as the great players of the 20s aged and were replaced.
Even more, by the time of the 1934 World Cup, Austria was past its best and it was bullied out of a semifinal against host Italy amid claims of refereeing that favored the home side.
The advent of the World Cup meant there was no football at the 1932 Olympics. They did, at last, meet for the first time at the 1954 World Cup, with Austria beating Uruguay 3-1 in the third-place match in Switzerland.
HOW IT WOULD'VE PLAYED OUT
There was always a flimsiness to the brilliance of Austria, a suggestion that it didn’t relish the physical side of the game. Not only was Austria out-muscled by Italy in 1934 but against England in 1932, a friendly that Austria dominated and for which it was widely praised, but was repeatedly undone by long balls and lost 4-3.
In terms of technical ability, Austria may have been slightly better, and certainly the imagination of Sindelar would have made for a more unpredictable side, but Uruguay was quite prepared to impose itself on a game physically, and that, combined with greater aerial ability, probably would have given the South Americans the edge.
Lorenzo Fernandez, Uruguay’s center half, was a broadly attacking player–he once scored a hat-trick playing at inside-left for the national side–but he was able to stand up to Argentina’s Luis Monti in the 1930 in a way that Smistik couldn’t in 1934 when Monti was playing for Italy.
The most fascinating individual battle, though, would probably have been that between Sindelar and Nasazzi, the radical deep-lying center forward against the best defender of the pre-War era.