Vienna is a cultural city where classical music pervades every corner of its well manicured strasse. Coffee is the beverage of choice and the food is hearty and satisfying. But football in such a city probably cannot claim to be, to quote Italian football’s Swedish legend Niels Liedholm, “the most important of the less important things in life”.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Austrians are more likely to get bent out of shape about the quality of their espresso than their football, but last year, Rapid Vienna fans bricked up the entrance to their ground in protest about the performance of the team and its management.
“We wanted to show we were unhappy with the way things were going,” said one Rapid fan as he passed the Gerhard Hannapi stadium. “Look, you can see some of the cement that was used.”
If there are “fanatics” among Austrian football’s patrons, they exist in the suburb of Hüttelsdorf, a working class area that is far removed from the dainty elegance of the Hapsburg palace at nearby Schönbrunn.
The area around Rapid’s ground suggests that not everyone in Vienna walks around in Hugo Boss clothing or gunslings a Prada handbag. It looks like a tough area, as evidenced by the threatening graffiti sprayed by the “Ultras”.
Rapid may be the Manchester United of Vienna, but they are not the Bundesliga champions. That honour belongs to the violet shirts of FK Austria Vienna, traditionally the club of the bourgeoisie and one that was followed by the thinkers and writers that patronised coffeehouse society. But that was a long time ago, in an age when Austria’s top clubs were among the most progressive and indeed, successful in Europe.
In those halcyon days, Austrian league games, especially those involving the Viennese giants, would draw hefty crowds, but when Rapid and FK Austria Vienna recently fought out a 0-0 draw at the Gerhard Hannapi (the second oldest derby in the world), the attendance was a now healthy 16,700. Rapid were reduced to 10 men when Stephen Palla was dismissed in the 26th minute, but the green and whites held on to earn a point and maintain their then unbeaten record. Any hopes of gaining an early season advantage over the cross-city neighbours were dashed, however – for the time being.
A load of red bull
Rapid ended 2012-13 in an air of discontent. As well as the “bricking-up” incident, unhappy fans boycotted a league game against Wiener Neustadt and then suffered the humiliation of a cup defeat against regional league side Pasching. They finished in third place, but they were 25 points behind champions FK Austria and 20 behind second-placed Salzburg.
“It’s unacceptable,” said Stephan, our staunch Rapid fan. “Historically, we have been the number one club in Austria, but Salzburg and now Wien have overtaken us in recent years. But we are the biggest club and we make the most noise – but we do not have the money that others have.”
Rapid’s budget this season is around EUR 20m and has been impacted by the loss of some key sponsors.
For people like Stephan, Salzburg’s recent dominance, coinciding with Red Bull’s takeover of the club, has been hard to stomach. The last time Rapid were able to say “Wir sind Meister” was in 2008 and since then big-spending Salzburg, Sturm Graz and FK Austria Vienna have all lifted the title. For a club that has won a record 32 Austrian titles, recent times have been lean. “Salzburg have had an unfair advantage in recent years,” he bemoans, the typical green-eyed reaction of fans who begrudge other clubs any sort of success.
Like all Austrian clubs, though, Rapid’s standing on the international stage has been somewhat diluted in the Champions League era. In pre-Glasnost Europe, a trip to Vienna would have been seen as a tough tie and Rapid reached two European Cup Winners’ Cup finals in 1985 and 1996 (losing to Everton and Paris St.Germain respectively). But today, they have to suffer the indignity of qualifying rounds even for the Europa League. They’ve disposed of Asteros Tripolis of Greece and are up against Georgian side Dila in the next round. This season, Rapid started ominously, losing to regional league side LASK from Linz on penalties in the cup but settled down to notch up a couple wins against Neustadt and Sturm before losing their unbeaten record in league game five, a 2-0 loss at Admira.
FK Austria Vienna, however, are pinning their hopes on Champions League progress. They have beaten the Icelanders, FH and now face Dinamo Zagreb over two legs. The confident billboards dotted around Vienna suggest they are “going for it”, but the Croatians will be a tough hurdle. The financial rewards of a group-stage place will give Die Veilchen a huge boost, although progress beyond qualification would be a major shock – not since 2005 when Rapid reached that stage has an Austrian outfit reached the groups.
As for Rapid 2013-14, their objective for the season as a whole is to improve on last season. But coach Zoran Barisic, who took over in the latter stages of 2012-13, has a very young squad. While the average age is barely 24, Rapid’s more experienced hands have all suffered injuries that will keep them sidelined in the early weeks of the season.
So Rapid went into the new campaign with no new signings and realistic ambitions. They may not be the force of old, but they should still have enough in the tank to ensure Europa League football in 2014-15. The club’s motto is to win through “strength and endurance”, locally known as Rapidgeist. If that’s not enough, the Rapid officials may yet spy another truckload of bricks arriving in Keisslergasse….