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British sports conference to hear tragic tale of Liapaja coach Otto Fisher

"Olimpija" Liepaja players carry Fischer on their shoulders, probably after another title-winning season.

The glory years of “Olimpija” Liepaja football club and their tragic coach Otto Fischer, murdered by the Nazis in 1941, will be told at a sports history conference in Britain in September.


Fischer was considered one of the best left-wingers in Austrian football in the late 1920s and was making his mark on the national team – later dubbed ‘The Wunderteam’ – when his career was ended by a serious knee injury.


He went into coaching and after spells in Serbia, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia took over at “Olimpija”, becoming the club’s fourth Austrian manager.


The first was Villy Maloschek who took the Latvian national team to the 1924 Olympics then coached the capital’s team RFK Riga” to three consecutive titles in the new top division, the Virsliga: 1924, 1925 and 1926. He moved west to the Baltic port city of Liepaja where he repeated his success with “Olimpija” in 1927. Then Bruno Zinger won the League and Cup double two years in a row in 1928 and 1929.


Fischer inherited a stable side that had played together since Maloschek’s day and adapted the “Viennese Lace” passing technique to the individual skills of his players.

He overcame early resistance to his methods from players and spectators alike, who thought it was boring to play that way hour after hour. Sometimes the playing staff had to be physically forced to embrace his system: those who didn’t were shown the door.


The results told their own story. “Olimpija” didn’t lose a game as they won the League in Fischer’s first season, then repeated the feat in 1938 and again in 1939, averaging more than three goals a game in that final year. By then record crowds were flocking to watch them and President Ulmanis was sending Fischer telegrams congratulating “Olimpija” on their “beautiful and masculine game”.


"Olimpija" Liepaja line-up from around 1938 – Otto Fischer is wearing the suit. The goalkeeper in the cap is Harijs Lazdins, the player who went to the Nazis to plead for Fischer’s life.

Always in a suit, Fischer learned the language, embraced the city and married a local girl. His football philosophy was never far from his mind. “The team that plays on the ground never loses,” was the first phrase he mastered. He introduced his technique at all levels of the club – low precise passing combinations where intelligence was more important than power. “This is a game with less power and more intelligence,” he would say.


When the Nazis forced the Red Army out in late June 1941, the killing of Jews started. Foreign Jews were rounded up and shot on the beach by the city’s lighthouse – it’s thought Fischer died here. His grave is unknown. His Latvian wife Anna was also rounded up and killed in the massacre of Liepaja Jews on the beach at Skede in December 1941.


The massacre of Liepaja Jews at Skede in December 1941 in which Fischer’s wife Anna died. Almost all Liepaja’s Jewish population were killed. All historical pictures courtesy of Ilana Ivanova of the Liepaja Jewish Heritage Foundation

Author Vincent Hunt included Fischer’s story in his account of WWII Latvia titled “Blood in the Forest – the end of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket” (Helion, 2017). A university lecturer in Journalism in Manchester, UK, he will present his research at a conference of British sports historians in Worcester on September 1st and 2nd.


Says Hunt: “I was interviewing the veteran Liepaja sportswriter Andzils Remess about his memories of the wartime city when he mentioned Fischer. He told me that the team pleaded with the Nazis not to shoot him and the big goalkeeper Harijs Lazdins went several times to ask for him to be spared. Fischer knew the end was coming – he’d gathered all the players at his house a few weeks before, effectively to say goodbye. He knew he was doomed.”


Under German occupation, Latvian sporting fixtures resumed. After the war, nine of Fischer’s players joined new club “Daugava” Liepaja, coached by Karlis Tils, with striker Ernest Zinger up front alongside Voldemars Sudmalis, who began his playing career with Olimpija in 1942.


Merging with another Latvian team to become “Sarkanais Metallurgs“ they won the League seven times in ten years between 1948 and 1958, a dominance greater than under Fischer. The “Olimpija” name was briefly revived following independence, but today the Liepaja team at the “Daugava” Stadium plays under the name FK “Liepaja”.


Hunt is appealing for memorabilia, photographs and stories from relatives of the players managed by Fischer so the story of those years can be told properly. Olimpija went undefeated in 1936 when they won the League under Fischer for the first time – in 1939 they averaged more than three goals a game.


The core of the team had been together since 1927: the goalkeeper Harijs Lazdins, six times League winner Karlis Tils, his defensive partner Fricis Laumanis, who barely missed a game in 13 years – and ever-presents Zins, Stankuss, Dudanecs and Kronlaks. All were Liepaja men.


Says Hunt: “Otto Fischer laid the building blocks for the subsequent success of the club in Soviet times – driven mostly by players who adapted his passing footballing philosophy. They called that period ‘the Fischer time’.


I hope we can find the families of some of those players so we can build a bigger picture of Fischer’s legacy and put his contribution into the context it deserves.”


His paper at the annual conference of the British Society of Sports Historians in Worcester is titled: “Uncovering the “Barcelona” of the Baltics: the story of Otto Fischer, the coach who brought beautiful football to Latvia.”



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