Sunday, 18 April 2021

The Side From Vienna Who Became Champions of Germany

They were, at the time, one of the best sides in all of Germany and found themselves 3-0 up. But what is most remarkable about the final of the 1941 German football championship is not that Schalke 04 went on to lose the match 4-3, but that their opponents were not actually from Germany itself.

What constitutes as Germany may nowadays seem rather straightforward but this has not always been the case. particularly before and during the war. Whilst the state, and former military power, of Prussia, which nowadays covers many different countries in eastern Europe, played a large role in Germany's history in the first half of the 20th century, there were many other countries annexed by Germany over the course of the second world war, for example. In short, what could once have been classed as Germany, or part of a greater Germany, covered a much larger area than the modern-day nation now does. Not only that but in the early years of the DFB (German football association), Germany's football authorities actively sought out members amongst ethnically German clubs from outside of the country. This changed when Germany joined FIFA but, to emphasise the significance of it, the very first German Championship saw a team from the city of Prague, capital of modern-day Czech Republic, finish runners up. 

But whilst DFC Prag were hammered 7-2 in the final, almost 40 years later there was another side from outside Germany that went one better. As a Jewish but also, of course, ethnically German club, the Jewish bit meant DFC Prag sadly did not survive the Nazi regime. But two years after DFC Prag's demise it was a team from the Hütteldorfer district of Vienna in recently annexed Austria who in 1941, in the midst of World War II, managed the feat of becoming the first, and to date only, club from outside Germany to be crowned German football champions.

SK Rapid Wien had made history in January 1939 when they became the first team from outside Germany to win the German Cup, then known as the Tschammerpokal. It was only the competitions fourth year of existence and the first year of Austrian participation when the side from Vienna defeated FSV Frankfurt 3-1 in the final. On March 12 of the previous year, German troops had marched into Austria to annex the German-speaking nation and see it become part of Hitler's Third Reich and so all Austrian sides now became part of German football. In that final FSV had led after 17 minutes and it wasn't till 10 minutes from time that the Viennese drew level but two further goals saw Rapid make history. Even greater success was to follow, however.

Pre Bundesliga, Germany had no top flight as such and was split into regional leagues with the winners of each league qualifying for the end of season German Championship that determined who would be the country's champions. Rapid played in what was known as the Gauliga Ostmark, Ostmark being the name the Nazi's gave for Austria once under their control, and in 1904-41 they finished top of the division losing only twice in an 18 game campaign.

For the German football championship, Rapid would take part in a four team group for which the winners would progress to the semi-finals. Rapid faced TSV 1860 München, Stuttgarter Kickers, and VfL Neckarau both home and away and lost only once. They finished top of the group ahead of an 1860 side that had beaten them in Munich. In the semi-finals, Rapid defeated Dresdner SC 2-1 to reach the final where they would face Schalke 04 in front of 95,000 spectators at a sold-out Olympiastadion in Berlin. Interestingly the match would end up taking place on the day that Hitler's German troops began their offensive in the Soviet Union for the very first time.

SK Rapid Wien in 1941 were probably not a team full of big name stars, and certainly not names many fans today would recognise. A year later a 17-year-old Ernst Happel would make his debut for the club but although Happel would become famous throughout the world of football as an all-time great, albeit more so for his managerial career, the same cannot really be said for those in the squad of 1940-41. Having said that the squad did include numerous Austrian internationals so were hardly a terrible side either, and their results that season showed that anyway. Rapid were very much an attacking team, Franz Binder was top scorer and would end up scoring 38 goals across the whole season with the team as a whole scoring on average almost four and a half goals a game. Binder would be Rapid's star man in the final too.

Rapid's final opponents Schalke 04 had won the two previous championships and several of their players were big name stars at the time with Ernst Kuzorra and Fritz Szepan, in particular, to this day considered two of the greatest Schalke, and indeed German, players of all time. Funnily enough, the pair also happened to be brothers-in-law. The club's success of recent times made them clear favourites for the final and when the match got underway they soon found themselves in the driving seat.

Schalke were facing Austrian opposition in the final for the second time in three seasons with Rapid, no doubt, hoping to fare better than SK Admira Wien had two years earlier when they lost 9-0 to the side from Gelsenkirchen. Within eight minutes, however, Schalke were 2-0 up and it looked as if Rapid might fare no better than their fellow Viennese side had in 1939.

Goals from forwards Heinz Hinz and Hermann Eppenhoff very quickly put Schalke two goals ahead and although Schalke were the better side, the scoreline remained 2-0 at the break with Binder having missed a penalty for Rapid. Any positives for the losing side were soon destroyed, however, when Hinz grabbed his second just before the hour mark. With Schalke now three goals up the contest seemed all but over and their fans were desperate for more. "9-0, 9-0!" the Schalke fans began to sing but if they sensed more blood then they were to be sadly mistaken. In fact, for Schalke things would actually take a real turn for the worse in scenes none of their supporters could have imagined.  

"Bad start - good end." was how prominent Viennese newspaper at the time Das Kleine Volksblatt described the match from a Rapid point of view and they were basically spot on. The 'good end' began when Georg Schors pulled a goal back for the Austrians two minutes after Schalke's third and it ended with Rapid 4-3 up.

It is claimed that once their third went in Schalke thought it was game over to the point that they never took their opponents seriously for the rest of the match, at least not until it was too late I guess. But true or not, don't let that diminish the achievements of Franz Binder because from 3-1 onwards it really was the Binder show. 

"Binder was once again wearing the best shooting boots" stated Das Kleine Volksblatt and he certainly used them to great effect. 3-1 very quickly became 3-2 when he fired home a free-kick on 62 minutes whilst four minutes later he made amends for his first-half penalty miss by drawing the sides level from the spot. Incredibly within the space of six minutes, Rapid had eradicated their three goal deficit and were now level at 3-3 in a game that only minutes earlier had seemed completely lost.

Two goals from Binder had helped turn the game on its head but he wasn't done yet. Five minutes after he'd drawn the sides level Binder completed his hat-trick to put Rapid in front and he did it in style. It was another free-kick that gave the Austrians the lead as Binder hammered the ball into the upper left corner - a beautiful strike. From 3-0 down Rapid now led 4-3, having achieved this feat in less than 15 minutes, and Schalke were shell shocked. Das Kleine Blatt summed it up cleverly with their headline "Berlin experiences a Rapid quarter of an hour"

Schalke never recovered from going behind and despite there being almost 20 minutes left, the side who went into the final as overwhelming favourites could not find an equaliser. Against all the odds SK Rapid Wien had become champions of the Third Reich. Having been given no chance before kick-off and having found themselves 3-0 down after 58 minutes, Rapid had achieved the seemingly impossible and done it in incredible fashion.

"The masses streamed into the field and the victorious [team from] Hütteldorfer could hardly resist the onslaught and the congratulations" declared newspaper Österreichische Volks-Zeitung after joyous supporters had run onto the pitch at full-time.

Rapid Wien have won many Austrian league titles in the years since, but becoming champions of Germany? Well, that one was unique! Austria's oldest club First Vienna, who interestingly use the English spelling of the city name, won the Tschammerpokal in 1943 but never again would a side from Austria, or indeed anywhere outside modern-day Germany, win a major German trophy. Of those two Austrian sides victorious in German football, however, SK Rapid Wien are the only ones to actually have won the German championship and what is the equivalent of the modern-day Bundesliga. They were a side from Austria that was crowned champions of Germany, a feat that will surely never be achieved by anyone ever again.

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