While football may have been initially organised and codified on English soil, the tactical and theoretical development of the game has historically been cultivated in other pockets of Europe, most notably the inter-war bourgeois societies of the Danubian region. From Vienna, to Budapest, to Prague and beyond, football was met with a deeply philosophical and sophisticated approach to the game which resulted in a distinctive style of play emerging from Central Europe. The social driving force behind this development was, of course, the coffee house.
With coffee having arrived in Europe en masse following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century, the mechanics of commercialisation which arose towards the end of the eighteenth century facilitated the widespread sale of the commodity across the continent. As Jonathan Wilson writes in Inverting the Pyramid, ‘The coffee house had flourished towards the end of the Habsburg Empire, becoming a public salon, a place where men and women of all classes mingled, but which became particularly noted for its artistic, bohemian aspect.’ In essence, these were forums for informal public discourse, places where people met to discuss the socio-political issues of the day. Indeed, with the growth in the popularity of football being one of the key aspects of Danubian culture at the time, the game naturally took precedence on the coffee house agenda.
While these meeting places were prevalent throughout Europe, nowhere did the culture of the coffee house catch on quite as strongly as in Austria. Different houses acquired different reputations, with some coming to be known for philosophy, others for politics, and others still for discussion of a sporting nature. As David Goldblatt points out in The Ball is Round, ‘The Ring Café – originally the watering hole of the Viennese Cricketers – became the social centre for the city’s football scene.’ By all accounts the Ring Café was a place where those involved with the game gathered to discuss at length issues with the game both tactical and cultural, ironing out problems and finding resolutions in the informal setting of the coffee house.
From this rudimentary footballing community sprung a style of football which emphasised the aesthetic nature of the game, systems which demonstrated remarkable flexibility and fluidity. With the help of Jimmy Hogan, Hugo Meisl – the coach of the Austrian Wunderteam and a major player in the Viennese social scene – perfected the 2-3-5 formation which came to be recognised as a symbol of coffee house culture. This was an elegant system which afforded creative control to an attacking centre-half and emphasised the importance of possession and keeping the ball on the floor. The team of Matthias Sindelar and Josef Smistik thrilled audiences around Europe and gained Austria the reputation of having the most advanced footballing society on the continent.
The Wunderteam may have been broken up by Nazi legislation that demanded players from Adolf Hitler’s home country represent the German national team, but its legacy lived on. With the thinking of Meisl and Hogan going on to influence that of the likes of Rinus Michels and Gustáv Sebes in the decades that followed, many of the games most beautiful and advanced tactical systems owe their existence to Austrian footballing philosophies. Football has much to thank the coffee houses for.