How Hugo Meisel Invented Football as We Know It
How Jews imported football into Austria – that is some strange tale. It happened after the Austrian branch of the Rothschilds hired a group of English gardeners to maintain the lawns at their mansion. The workers brought along both a football and a strong passion for the unfamiliar game. The first football match in Austria took place on the magnificent lawns of the Rothchild mansion. But with all due respect to the noble banking dynasty, the man who made the most significant contribution to Austrian and European football was another Jew, who ironically chose to leave banking behind.
Hugu Meisel was born in 1881 in Bohemia, then in the Austrian-Hungarian empire (now in the Czech Republic). His father was the banker Ludwig Meisel and his mother was Caroline. His parents designated him for a banking career and when he turned 12, they sent him to Vienna to study in a school of commerce. Throughout school years, though, young Hugo was way more interested in playing football. He fell in love with the new game and joined the Vienna Cricket and Football club, where he was influenced by English styles. His parents would not give up their plans and sent him to Paris and Trieste for further studies, and when he was 24 years old he found himself behind a desk, working in a bank.
Unwilling to abandon his great love for football, Meisel started to work as a football referee, and soon reached international level. His high education did become useful, as he mastered German, English, French, Italian, Czech, Swedish, Spanish, and Dutch. He went on expanding his knowledge on the professional aspects of the game and in 1913 was appointed manager of the Austrian team, just before the leaders of Europe decided that some things are more important than football, such as a World War which shall cause the loss of millions of lives.
At the eve of World War I, Meisel hired a brilliant English coach called Jimmy Hogan who was rejected in his homeland. Hogan believed in short passes and tactic coordinated movement of the team rather than long ball chase practiced by the English. Meisel gave Hogan a free hand, which he could not enjoy in England.
But when the war broke, all Englishmen in Vienna, Hogan included, were imprisoned, until the battles are over – a matter of just a few weeks, everybody believed. Meisel was drafted and served in the front, yet he managed to pay off the guards and set Hogan free and bring him to Budapest, where his friends at the Jewish MTK branch took care of him. This action had two results: nine consecutive victories of the Hungarian team; a shift of the center of central European football to Hungary.
After the end of the war Meisel hasted to return Hogan and execute the big plans he had for the Austrian team. His new vision consisted of a pure professional approach, and the first professional team was Hakoah Wien club, where Meisel had friends and contacts, although he was from the Austria Vienna club, another Jewish institute, which was more assimilated in the Austrian general society.
By the early 1930’s the Austrian team became the best in Europe. With Hogan and Meisel as the professional wing, they brought on board the gifted and talented Matthias Sindelar as a player. Meisel went on promoting the intellectual aspects of the game and founded a panel of intellectuals, fans, managers and colleagues to discuss football news and developments. Sometimes he even used the forum just to pick the team’s line up before matches.
At that period, Meisel had a correspondence with two of the greatest strategists, Herbert Chapman, manager of Arsenal who ruled English football, and Vittorio Pozzo, who was improving the Italian team, who later won the world cup in 1934 and 1938. Meisel was focused on his next aim: international football. He realized that the game’s strength lies in its international nature. After maximizing the professional and tactic aspects, he went on investing his talents in making football international, and founded the first international enterprises: The Mitropa Cup for club sides, and the Intercontinental Cup for representative teams. At first, mostly clubs and teams from central Europe participated, but when you watch today the European Football Championship or the the UEFA Champions League, you are actually watching Hugo Meisel’s vision coming true.
Like the entire Austrian humanism and the Jewish dream of full integration – Meisel’s dream shattered. In 1934 Austria lost the world cup semifinal game after Mussolini hosted the referees for dinner at his home the night before the game. The Italian defender Monti hit Sindelar in his face, and while the Austrian player was bleeding before the referee’s eyes, he didn’t do anything to help him.
Hugo Meisel died of a heart attack during practice in 1937, fortunate enough to pass away and not having to see the fall of both his country and his life work. In 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria, the football national team included. Sindelar, though not a Jew, refused to represent Germany. In the last game of the Austrian team they won, and Sindelar celebrated the victory, trying to provoke the Nazis in seats of honor. A few weeks later he died in unknown circumstances – murder, suicide, or perhaps an accident. Years later, Sindelar was declared the greatest Austrian athlete of all times, and the greatest football player in the 20th century.
We could have ended our story here, but Hugo Meisel had a younger brother named Willy Meisl, a football journalist, who in 1934 figured out the political situation, and left to England where he served the British intelligence during World War II. After the war he became the most famous football reporter in the world, applying all the knowledge he learnt from his elder brother. In 1953 he compiled all his comprehensive mastery and published the book “The Soccer Revolution”. European football was a trendy issue at in England the time, after a few painful losses, which resulted in a growing understanding that the continent is getting better than England.
Two of Willy Meisl’s insights were prophecies that fully realized: in his visit to Brazil he saw the personal capabilities of boys on the streets and wrote that the joining together of their talent and the European tactic knowledge will make Brazil the best football nation – which came true; in another chapter he introduced a tactic that his brother thought of before his death. He offered to dismantle the roles and try a more flexible game formation, allowing players to switch roles. After many years, Rinus Michels said he was inspired by Meisl’s book when he introduced the “total football” style while coaching the Dutch team.
(Translated from Hebrew by Danna Paz Prins)