A Tribute to The Little Professor of Soccer – Leo Baumgartner

Baumgartner

The passing of Leopold Baumgartner at the start of this week brought much sadness to the Australian football community. Those who watched him play talk about his skill and artistry. Those who knew him personally use the words ‘gentleman’, ‘servant’, and ‘ahead of his time.’

Baumgartner as a footballer was an entertainer at heart, a real showman. People flocked to see his sublime technical brilliance, attacking exploits, and exaggerated mannerisms.

For many of us who never witnessed Baumgartner play, or the good fortune to get to know him, our connections are through a shared passion for the sport, how it should be played, and that Australia’s football success lies in developing juniors. For those who fall under this category, that are grieving his loss, it’s his imprint on football that moves our emotions. It is an emptiness of not getting to know Baumgartner that hurts.

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1932, a child prodigy spotted at an early age, Baumgartner played for the two largest clubs in Austria – FK Rapid and FK Austria. It was during a ten-week tour of Australia and New Zealand with FK Austria in 1957 that Baumgartner fell in love with our country “the biggest thing on that trip was the white beaches, the sunshine, the space and the size of the houses”, said Baumgartner. “Also, the people were so hospitable and happy.”

It’s his imprint on football that moves our emotions. It is an emptiness of not getting to know Baumgartner that hurts.

Post tour, and back in Vienna, a team masseur overheard a conversation between Baumgartner and fellow FK Austria player, Karl Jaros, about financial issues they were having with the club. The masseur offered to write to his Czech friend in Sydney, to see if the Sydney-based club Prague would be interested in the player’s services. At the time they entertained the request, but neither of them took it seriously.

Upon receiving the letter, Prague 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 that the new migrant-based Australian Soccer Federation – of which Prague was a member – had been outlawed by FIFA, so the club could avoid paying FK Austria a transfer fee.

The migrant football community in Australia wanted the game to move away from amateurism to a professional competition. Based on the experience in their homelands, the ethnic clubs knew the model had to be about entertaining the fans in order to generate sufficient revenue from gate receipts and sponsorship. They needed star players who could draw crowds. More importantly clubs wanted results. No different to what the board of Sydney FC want with their marquee player, Alessandro Del Piero.

The players left Europe with their wives, via an immigrant ship from the Italian port of Genoa, and arrived in Melbourne. From there they were flown to Sydney, where waiting for them were a group of excited supporters, anxious club officials, and media. As the players exit customs, adoring fans swarmed him, and his wife was presented with bouquets of flowers.

The remuneration and lifestyle provided by the semi-professional clubs of the 1950s and 1960s could not match the extravagance of today’s modern superstars, however their intent to pamper the stars was evident. Baumgartner and Karos were provided with a six-bedroom house in Marrickville for six months. Their fridge stocked with food, chores were attended to and clothes provided.

The star pair were presented to the fans at an official function on Sydney’s North Shore. Their first game was against Hakoah in front of 7,500 spectators. Prague finished fourth in 1958. However, the coverage in Austria of the star’s experience in Australia would set off other players wanting a change of life, with Walter Tamanl, Andrea Shagi, Eric Schwarz and Herbert Ninaus all arriving from Austria to play with Prague for the 1959 season.

As the players exit customs, adoring fans swarmed him, and his wife was presented with bouquets of flowers.

Prague won the pre-season Ampol Cup 7-0 against Auburn before going on to win the competition. Prague beat APIA in the grand final, with Baumgartner scoring two goals (32 for the season) in front of 13,000 people at Henson Park in Marrickville. That year he also represented the NSW Federation side that played against Costa Rica’s Deportiva Saprissa.

Former Australian goalkeeper Ron Lord, who played in the 1959 Prague side, remembered a goal Baumgartner scored :

“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.”

The following season Baumgartner signed a contract with Canterbury, in John Gray’s sports store in Kingsgrove, in Sydney’s south-west. Gray got to know the Austrian star, as a stockist of Leopold Baumgartner boots.

Baumgartner was brought to Canterbury to help with the football education process for their youthful side, which was coached by ‘Uncle’ Joe Vlatsis. Also in the side was the Warren brothers, Johnny and Geoff, John Watkiss and current Western Sydney Wanderers’ goalkeeping coach, Ron Corry. In his book Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, the late, great, Johnny Warren recalled:

“The crowds used to love him [Baumgartner] because he was tremendously gifted with the ball and he always try to keep them entertained in return.”

Baumgartner scored 30 goals for Canterbury that year. But none were as remarkable as his goal that changed the grand final against his former team Prague, in front of a crowd of 17,872 spectators at Henson Park.

Down 2-1, Baumgartner collected the ball in his own half, beat three players, and then laid a perfect pass to Jose Amigo. The ball was then played to Geoff Warren, who cut the ball back for Baumgartner in the box, who finishes what is later regarded as the goal of the season. Canterbury would go onto win the game 5-2. In describing the atmosphere, Baumgartner could be excused for poetic exaggeration:

“The whole crowd stood up with a tremendous roar, hats flying, papers being thrown around, jackets tossed high in the air. A jubilation went through the crowd.”

Baumgartner would only spend one season with Canterbury. He briefly signed with South Coast in 1961 as player-coach, but this would only last four games. Needing to salvage their season, APIA Leichhardt paid South Coast a transfer fee as well as four players in exchange for the Austrian star. Almost 500 fans attended his first training session, however the season was below expectations for the Italian-backed community club.

The year 1962 would be a prosperous one for Baumgartner, who was appointed coach for Sydney Croatia, NSW Federation, as well as, an administration job with APIA Leichhardt. Under his coaching, NSW won the interstate competition undefeated, APIA Leichhardt made the semi finals NSW Division 1, and Sydney Croatia won promotion from Division 2.

In the following year, 1963, the mismanagement of Baumgartner began. In late February, Baumgartner was given the role of Director of Coaching in NSW. Whilst washing his car one Friday morning, an official who lived nearby asked Baumgartner if he would like to conduct a football camp for 100 boys. The problem was the camp was the next day. When Baumgartner arrived at the camp nothing had been organised. He had to make up most of it on the run – the programs, drills, even making sure the kids went to sleep.

Soon Baumgartner resigned as captain and coach of the NSW representative team. In a meeting with the federation, Baumgartner cited the needs of his club, and the financial impact on his family should he be injured while playing. The versions of events quoted by Baumgartner in his biography, and also in various interviews, differ from what was reported at the time. The only consistency was that Baumgartner and Leo Karos were banned for life from representative duties. “Having proved my worth to Australian soccer, I was suspended for life,” said Baumgartner. “What a humiliation.”

That year, APIA Leichhardt lost the grand final to South Coast at Sydney Showground. The crowd was listed at over 30,000 people, although it was reported that police had to close the ground and turn supporters away. After 20 minutes, APIA were down 3-0, and supporters began to boo their own team. Post game rumours began to circulate that Baumgartner had thrown the game. Consequently, he was hauled in front of the APIA committee, then placed on the transfer list – for a fee of £1,200.

“The committee had two factions,” said Baumgartner. “One was Italian and the other wasn’t…my interest was in soccer, not club politics. It was time to go.”

Leo Baumgartner would never again achieve the great heights of his time at Prague, Canterbury and APIA. In 1964 Hakoah had finally got the player they had been chasing for years. During this time Down Under, Baumgartner became an Australian citizen, the state federation lifted his lifetime ban, and he received his one and only representative cap for Australia. In front of a sold out Sydney Showground, they lost 5-1 to a touring Everton team.

The marriage of powerhouse club Hakoah and Leo Baumgartner should have brought trophies, but instead it fell to pieces due to political infighting. Tired of being used as pawn, he left the club, and for a brief period it looked like he had retired as a player from the game. He left Hakoah to coach Sutherland in second division, and worked with junior clubs in the area.

Baumgartner also got the entrepreneurial urge and opened up a European restaurant, which would send his family on the brink of financial ruin. The culmination of not playing top-level football and a failed business made him want to return to Austria. Yet after just a few days in the country of his birth, he realised Australia was truly his home.

When he coached me, everything had to be played out from the back on the ground, and if you didn’t, he would let you know about it.

Upon returning to Australia, Baumgartner revisited his early training as an engineer, and got a job with Qantas. For financial reasons, he decided to return to top-level football with Sydney Croatia. It was a lucrative offer, and it would turn out to be his last season as a player/coach.

However, club politics continued to follow Baumgartner. After a heavy defeat against Yugal, Baumgartner knew his time with the club was over, “Things became a bit uncomfortable there when we were beaten 6-1 by Yugal, a Yugoslav club that the Croatians have always had issues with.”

By 1972 Baumgartner went back to the club he first started his Australian adventure with – Prague – and coached the team for a couple of seasons. In 1974, he had a brief stint coaching Marconi, and returned to coaching the NSW representative team.

Dave Roxby, a Western Australian Hall of Fame goalkeeper, played under Baumgartner as an over aged player during 1981, in Hakoah’s youth side. “Leo always wanted it played on the ground,” explains Roxby. “He was very professional, and I enjoyed playing for him. He was very technical, seemed before his time. When he coached me, everything had to be played out from the back on the ground, and if you didn’t, he would let you know about it.”

In the late 1980s, Baumgartner would return to Sydney Croatia as the Director of Coaching. It was during this time when Mark Bosnich, Zeljko Kalac and Tony Popovic were coming through the youth and senior ranks.

At the end of leaving Sydney United, Baumgartner would move to Coffs Harbour on the north coast of NSW, where he lived until his final days. The game in his adopted homeland recognised him for his contribution with an Award of Distinction for outstanding service to football in 2001.

He continued with his passion in developing juniors. He won a premiership with Coffs Coast Tigers, and in 2011, was asked to coach a struggling Sawtell Scorpions. Terry Allen, writing a tribute piece for North Coast Football’s website, reflects on a game Baumgartner was coaching:

“I once saw him pull a player off the field before half time when one of his teams had fallen behind. The player, who clearly thought he should have been given the full game to show his wares, said something like, “But it’s not even half time yet. I’ll be right.” To that, Leo replied, “You’ve had half an hour to do that and you’re crap. Now get off!””

Baumgartner’s Australian football story is a cautionary tale. He was never used to his full potential to help with the development of the sport. He had brief moments, and helped on the fringes. If Baumgartner was respected for his superior technical ability, and for his work as football educator with young players, it is a shame his impact was not as large as his talent deserved. The game has suffered as a consequence.

But for all the negatives Baumgartner experienced, he still preferred to remember the positives the game provided him. A quote from Baumgartner’s autobiography ‘The Little Professor of Soccer’ should be etched into every administrator’s job description:

“Soccer needs juniors and it should be kept well in mind that with the juniors lies the future; not the political jealousies and personal ambitions.”

Amen to that. Thank you Leo. You are one of the true greats to grace our football fields.

Shaun is contributing editor for Leopold Method, interpreting the ‘cause and effects’ in Australian football. Previously his articles for retail and SME marketing were syndicated across 6 countries. He has also co-authored 2 books.

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