Sydney Airport’s arrival terminal is buzzing with anticipation. A group of excited supporters, anxious club officials, and media await a football star’s arrival. As the player exits customs, adoring fans swarm him, and his wife is presented with bouquets of flowers. Sharp bursts of light from the swarm of photographer’s flashlights. Journalist and television cameraman jostle for prime position.
For many this would read like another article on Sydney FC’s marquee signing, Alessandro Del Piero, arrival into Sydney. However, this event occurred in 1958, when Austrian star footballer Leopold Baumgartner was brought in by Prague to play in the New South Wales first division. Add in a plural to star footballer, as Prague’s other signing was fellow countryman Karl Jaros who had accompanied Baumgartner on the new adventure.
Australian football was moving away from amateurism to a professional competition. Ethnic clubs knew from experiences of their homeland, the model had to be about entertaining the fans in order to generate sufficient revenues from gate receipts and sponsorship. They needed star players who could draw crowds. More importantly club’s wanted results.
Baumgartner succeeded in increasing attendances and adorning clubhouses with trophies. This star player, like many of his contemporaries, did not just bring short-term benefits for title chasing clubs, and to his bank balance. He stayed to continue his legacy of introducing Australia to a new tactical and skilful approach, directly influencing the professionalism of the game. In his autobiography, The Little Professor of Soccer, he writes:
“Our only aim (he includes Jaros’ sentiments) was to show our skills and to play soccer as best we could, thus contributing to a young country’s ambition to demonstrate its prowess in the field of soccer. Despite early reports of a low standard, we firmly believed that soccer in Australia had more than a good chance to improve and to become popular.”
Fifty-four years later, three World Cup appearances, and a launch (and re-launch) of a national domestic competition; international stars signed for large sums of money have repeated the same ambitions. Upon the rise of each new boom of the sport, the lessons of history forgotten, yet the actions that have hampered progress are repeated.
Baumgartner & Karos’ welcoming party hosted by new club Prague.
Source: The Little Professsor of Soccer
Baumgartner’s Australian football story is a cautionary tale. A precedent on how marquees can benefit the game. Through improved standard of football, by entertaining the crowds, on commercialising the marquee, and using them to create a legacy.
However, lessons are learned in failure. The missed opportunity to leverage off the increase in crowd attendances and media coverage. Football administrator’s mismanagement of Baumgartner has been used as a template, with a ‘insert name’ section generally being the only defining difference.
A child prodigy spotted at an early age, Baumgartner played for the two largest clubs in Austria – FK Rapid and FK Austria. It is the later, whose ten-week tour of Australia and New Zealand, introduced Baumgartner and Karos to the beauty of our beaches and way of life, “the biggest thing on that trip was the white beaches, the sunshine, the space and the size of the houses. Also, the people were so hospitable and happy.”
Baumgartner was enchanted with Australia and he felt his wife would be as well. He came home to tell family and friends what a wonderful place Australia was. Coming to play in Australia seemed like a dream. At 26 years of age, Baumgartner was a highly pedigreed footballer, regularly playing in front of large crowds, and for the national team. The risk seemed too great. To come to Australia would provide a better lifestyle, but also the step down in football standards was great. The game in Australia was only reaching adolescence.
Entertaining a preposterous request by the team masseur during a casual conversation with Jaros, in a restaurant in Vienna, would lead to a chain of events that lead the star players to live in a far away land.
“We were still having some problems with FK Austria and I loosely mentioned to Karl that I wouldn’t mind maybe going to Australia for a couple of years.” The issues both players had with their clubs were financial. Overhearing the conversation, the team masseur asked if he could write to his Czechoslovakian friend in Sydney. They entertained the request, but neither of them took it seriously.
That evening Baumgartner told of his conversation to his wife, and even jokingly put the question to her. She replied, “Yes, when are leaving? Tomorrow?”
Prague upon receiving the letter began to chase the star pairing. A club official was dispatched to Austria to set the groundwork. Baumgartner corresponded with a contact he had in Australia. He learned of the new migrant-based Australian Soccer Federation (which Prague was a member of) had been outlawed by FIFA, so the club could avoid paying FK Austria a transfer issue.
He was made aware via his contact that he would also to find a job, as football was not a full time position. But this did not deter them. The players decided to play in Australia, and informed their club of the decision, and shortly after were on an immigrant ship leaving from the Italian port of Genoa.
Whilst the remuneration and lifestyle provided by the semi professional clubs, of the 1950s and 60s, could not match the extravagance of today’s modern superstars, the intent to pamper them could not be flawed. Baumgartner and Karos were provided with a six-bedroom house in Marrickville for six months. Their fridge stocked with food, chores attended to, and even clothes provided. The local Czech and Austrian community were out to make their stars welcome, and provide the most comfortable of lives.
They were presented to the fans at an official function on Sydney’s North Shore. Whilst no jersey was presented in front of waiting media pack, the formal affair was a chance for the acquired players and their wives to mingle with the faithful.
The investment was to be recuperated with a trial game organised within four days of Baumgartner and Karos’ arrival. They hit the training paddock at Prague’s home ground, E.S. Marks Field in Sydney’ eastern suburbs. Weeks on a ship, and a short acclimatisation period, was not the ideal preparation for the stars first game against Hakoah in front of 7,500 spectators.
Twenty minutes into the game, both players were exhausted, and had trouble dealing with the heat. The Prague players relied heavily on their star pairing, with Baumgartner claiming his team felt “there was no need for them to do too much themselves.” Jaros and Baumgartner still scored a goal each in the 7-2 loss.
Baumgartner’s early observation on Australian football was compared to the standard of football and training, he was used to playing in Europe. He discussed the need for more intense training. Playing top-level football required continuous work on the basics and attention to detail. Amateur attitudes, and the ‘laid back Australian life’, caused him the greatest grief. He would go onto exclaim that players would choose when to attend training, which ‘hampered the formation of a first class team’.
Prague finished fourth in 1958. However, the coverage in Austria of the two star’s experiences in Australia would set off other players wanting a change of life via letter’s sent directly to Baumgartner with requests to play in Australia. The star player persuaded the board to bolster Prague’s playing stocks.
“(Walter) Tamandl, (Andrea) Shagi, and (Eric) Schwarz were all good players in Austria and wanted to come here. I persuaded the (Prague) committee and in a short time I was meeting the three of them at the airport.” Midway through the season Hebert Ninaus arrived only after a few weeks prior having played for the Austrian national team game against France.
Prague won the pre season Ampol Cup 7-0 against Auburn marking the change in fortune for Prague in the 1959 season. They would also go onto win the competition and made it through to the grand final.
In an interview with Greg Stock, for Australian Online Football Museum, former Australian goalkeeper Ron Lord who was playing in the 1959 side remembers the quality of the Austrian star:
“He scored a goal once, I forget who it was against. But he took one defender on and beat him took another defender on beat him and left them behind. The goalkeeper came out and he beat the keeper and he was still reasonably well out from the goal. Taking the ball up to the goal line and had time to get down on his hands and knees and just nod the ball over with his forehead. It was sheer arrogance but artistry in the way he did it, and of cause all of the crowd chants “Sabrina. Sabrina”. He was sheer entertainment, and that’s what you have got to do, entertain the crowd.”
Baumgartner scored 32 goals in the 1959 season. He represented the NSW Federation side that played against Costa Rica’s Deportiva Saprissa. Whilst he and his family were enjoying their new lives in Australia, the representative games helped fill a void. “It was another taste big time soccer that I had missed. There were big crowds.” He captained the side to three victories.
In the week leading up to the grand final, the team went into camp in the Blue Mountains. Two training sessions were conducted each day. Ron Lord stated “when the Austrians initially came out in 1958 with Baumgartner and Jaros, etc. It was a more professional outlook and attitude.” Professionalism triumphed in the rain, as Prague won the grand final against APIA, with Baumgartner scoring two goals at Henson Park, in front of a crowd of 13,000.
Baumgartner would claim another nickname ‘Sabrina’. He believed he received it in the grand final because the APIA’s Italian supporters were chanting the moniker to put him off his game. On the contrary it describes the admiration for the talents put on display. He would run with his chest out, his fleet of foot with the ball was akin to a ballerina’s performance. During his time with APIA, he never heard the name mentioned by those whom he claimed christened him with it.
The results improved in line with the quality of football produced on the pitch. Crowds increased each week; their enthusiasm also grew in unprecedented strength and in voice. The mainstream press also took notice, the upsurge of football translated into increased column inches.
The football community felt their fierce winter rivals in NSW, rugby league and union, feared the boom of a new rival. These new feelings of optimism unsuspectingly echoed in the following decades, as history would show a set of trends of almost cyclical claims of a ‘new dawn’. The sleeping giant of football rustled awake after periods of hibernation, only to shrug it off and return to its slumber.