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.
Best soccer tifos from around the world
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Hapoel Be'er Sheva fans turn to Moses for tifo inspiration, with his splitting the Red Sea illustrating how "impossible is nothing" in their Europa League series against Besiktas.
Fans of Tunisia's Club Africain display this pointed tifo at a friendly against PSG, whose Qatari owners have pumped millions and millions into the club.
U.S. fans in Columbus, Ohio, make a "One Nation, One Team" statement ahead of the USMNT's World Cup qualifying match against Mexico on November 11, 2016.
Germany fans display their heart for the team colors ahead of a World Cup qualifier against Czech Republic in October 2016.
Italy fans spell out their support for the Azzurri ahead of a massive World Cup qualifier vs. Spain in October 2018.
Iceland fans keep up their world-famous passion for the national team during a World Cup qualifier against Turkey in October 2016.
Fans in the United Arab Emirates set their sights on reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia during a qualifying match vs. Australia in September 2016.
Colombia fans send a massive jersey around the stadium during a World Cup qualifier vs. Venezuela in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn to Game Of Thrones for inspiration in a game against the Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps in September 2016.
Djurgardens fans go all out in Sweden for a match against AIK in September 2016.
Zulte Waregem fans prepare Kortrijk for the absolute worst in this Belgian top-flight match in September 2016.
Seattle Sounders fans turn their pop culture reference to Poltergeist in March 2016 ahead of the season home opener against Sporting Kansas City.
The Timbers Army doubles down on their Eastbound and Down theme, adding another wrinkle during the club's MLS Western Conference final first leg vs. FC Dallas on November 22, 2015 at Providence Park.
Fans make a French flag tifo at Wembley Stadium during the singing of Le Marseillaise ahead of England's friendly vs. France, which took place days after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
The Timbers Army referenced Eastbound & Down's Kenny Powers with their "Cup Bound and Down" tifo for the Portland Timbers' MLS playoff elimination game against Sporting Kansas City on October 29, 2015.
Brondby IF fans display a gladiator holding up a lion's head during the team's Danish Alka Superliga match against FC Copenhagen, whose logo is a lion's head, on September 27, 2015.
New England Revolution fans equate Jermaine Jones to Indiana Jones on their quest to capture the 2015 MLS Cup on September 26, 2015.
New England Revolution fans display a Lion King theme in honor of Orlando City FC's first visit to Gillette Stadium on September 5, 2015.
Red Bulls fans take a shot at NYCFC's two summer arrivals, 37-year-old Frank Lampard and 36-year-old Andrea Pirlo, ahead of their third MLS meeting of 2015.
Germany fans in Cologne salute their World Cup champions ahead of a friendly against the United States in June, 2015.
Real Madrid fans went all out prior to the second leg of the 2014-15 Champions League semifinal vs. Juventus.
Lazio fans display a stunning eagle tifo ahead of the Rome derby against AS Roma in their penultimate Serie A match of the 2014-15 season.
Barcelona fans bid farewell to veteran midfielder Xavi with this banner at his last league game at Camp Nou before he departs for Qatari club Al Sadd.
Fans at Anfield pay tribute to Steven Gerrard in his final home match as a Liverpool player in May 2015.
Juventus fans state their case to beat Real Madrid in the 2014-15 Champions League semifinals and reach the final in Berlin.
Fans at Benfica's Estadio da Luz remind rival Porto who the Primeira Liga reigning champion is during an April 2015 match in Portugal.
New York Red Bulls fans send a pointed message to their NYCFC counterparts prior to the teams' first MLS meeting in May, 2015.
Inter Milan's Curva Nord announces its presence ahead of the April 2015 Derby della Madonnina–the annual clashes between city rivals Inter and AC Milan.
Bayern Munich fans implore their club to (translated) "Never give up" in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg vs. Porto. Bayern then turned a 3-1 first-leg deficit into a 7-4 aggregate win and a place in the semifinals.
Dortmund fans commemorate their 1997 Champions League trophy in the club's clash vs. Juventus–the opponent on the wrong side of that title bout.
Portland Timbers fans speak out against homophobia with this tifo in a 2013 match against Chivas USA
Atletico's supporters display a banner reading "Atleti crushes" before the Spanish league match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid,
Borussia Dortmund fans put on a remarkable display ahead of a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg match.
Brondby IF fans unveil a tifo ahead of a match in Denmark against Randers FC.
FC Barcelona fans display a huge banner in memory of former head coach Tito Vilanova.
Galatasaray fans support their team during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray at the Turk Telekom Arena in Istanbul.
The American Outlaws unveil a huge tifo ahead of a 2014 World Cup send-off match between the USA and Turkey at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
Marseille's supporters use paper sheets to create an "OM" (Olympique de Marseille) tifo at the beginning of the French L1 football match between Marseille and Genoble.
Seattle Sounders fans display their tifo that shows coach Sigi Schmid playing cards and holding a Royal Flush before a match against the Portland Timbers.
Panathinaikos Athens fans display a banner during the UEFA Europa League match against Dynamo Moscow.
Fans of the Saudi Al-Hilal team celebrate after the scoring of a goal against Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor.
Seattle Sounders fans unveil a tifo inspired from the “Build a Bonfire” chant, featuring Sounder players holding torches on horseback ahead of a game against the Portland Timbers.
Fans of Hertha BSC before the Bundesliga match between Hertha BSC and Werder Bremen in Berlin.
Sporting Kansas City fans channel their inner Mario ahead of the 2013 MLS Cup final vs. Real Salt Lake.
Brondby IF fans.
Thousands of Barcelona fans hold up cards to spell out "Barca! Orgull," which translates to "Barcelona pride" ahead of a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich at Camp Nou.
Fans raise a tifo celebrating “Community, Club and Country” ahead of a CONCACAF Gold Cup match between the USA and Belize in Portland, Oregon.
Vitesse fans unfurl a massive Eagle banner at the Dutch Eredivisie match against Ajax at the GelreDome.
Valencia fans drape a banner featuring a king for a Copa del Rey ("The King's Cup) match against Atletico Madrid.
Juventus fans make a statement in Turin in a match vs. Inter Milan.
Dortmund fans put on another strong display at a Bundesliga match against Mainz 05.
German fans boast the newest star earned by the national team, symbolizing its 2014 World Cup triumph, at a Euro 2016 qualifying match in Dortmund.
Real Madrid fans make a point to display the club's 10 European championships ahead of the October 2014 clash against rival Barcelona at the Bernabeu.
San Jose Earthquakes fans unleash a massive tifo to mark the opening of Avaya Stadium, MLS's newest soccer-specific venue, in March 2015.
Barcelona fans show all who the real 12th man is ahead of the March 2015 Clásico vs. Real Madrid.
Ahead of a clash with Mexican foe Monterrey, Tigres players are treated by this message by its fervent supporters.
Standard Liege fans have a pointed message for Steven Defour, who departed the club for Belgian rival Anderlecht.
Orlando City fans mark their club's inaugural MLS game vs. fellow expansion side New York City FC with a statement that the Lions' "reign begins now."
Real Madrid fans salute Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo after he captured the most prestigious individual prize in world soccer again.
Vitesse fans pay homage to Operation Market Garden ahead of an Eredivisie match against SC Heerenveen.
Sevilla's fans deploy a giant banner in the stands before the UEFA Europa league final match between Benfica and Sevilla.
Fans in Liverpool’s Kop End at Anfield commemorate those lost in the Hillsborough disaster.
Lyon fans during a game against Saint Etienne.