European Football

I can hear the Graz grow

Graz on top – action from Sturm’s 1-0 win against Salzburg Photo: PA

UNTIL last weekend, Sturm Graz had a 100% record in the Austrian Bundesliga, but a 2-1 defeat at LASK Linz ended the Styrian club’s impeccable start to the season.

Austrian football has been dominated by RB Salzburg for the past 11 years, eight titles in that timeframe. Salzburg’s Red Bull backing makes them unpopular with many people and creates a very uneven playing field. Everyone seems to revel in Salzburg’s failures, such as the recent defeat in the UEFA Champions  League which sent them into the Europa League. Sturm Graz beat Salzburg 1-0 in the game preceding the setback in Linz.

“After Rapid Vienna, Sturm have the most emotional support in Austria,” says their Sporting Director, Günter Kreissl. “There is a lot of noise and interest around our club.”

In 2016-17, Sturm Graz averaged 10,500 for their home games, around 50% of Rapid’s total but 2,500 more than champions Salzburg.

There’s also growing curiosity about Graz as a tourist destination, although like its football, it is often overshadowed by Vienna and Salzburg. A recent magazine article called it, “Austria’s hippest city”, which is no mean feat given the riches, history and culture of the capital.

From a football perspective, Graz have just three title wins to their credit, the last secured in 2010-11. The other two were in 1998 and 1999. They’ve won four Austrian cups, the most recent picked up in 2010.

As the capital city of Styria, Graz has become renowned as a breeding ground for good quality footballers. “Part of the identity of our club is our ability to find new talent,” says Kreissl. “For example, in the English Premier, Watford’s defender, Sebastian Prödl is a former Sturm player, and you can also find Sturm Graz products in, for example, Germany and Turkey.”

Kreissl reluctantly admits that there is an inevitability about selling your best talent, but the romantic in him longs for the day when clubs like Sturm Graz can keep their top players and build a successful team. “In today’s football environment, everyone except the very elite clubs are sellers of talent. It is a fact of life.”

That doesn’t mean it is an impossible task to be competitive, he adds. “We are showing that through continuity and the addition of two or three good acquisitions, that we can create a good team.” Among the new arrivals this summer was Nigerian forward Emeke Eze from Finland’s Rovaniemen Palloseura. Most of the other arrivals were free transfers from Austrian clubs, Peter Kulj and Fabiean Schubert came from Ried, while Thorsten Röcher came from Mattersburg. Patrick Puchegger was previously with Bayern Munich’s second eleven.

Kriessl looks to the English Premier for inspiration as his club goes head-to-head with more resourced outfits. “To be frank, Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League win was a massive motivator for all underdogs across Europe. It showed that working together with a common cause can make you successful. Leicester was a great story.”

So can Sturm, under coach Franco Foda, make a genuine title challenge this season? Doubtless Austrian football could do with an alternative champion to Salzburg, if only to help boost the image of the game in one of Europe’s historic football homes. “At the moment, we are aiming to be in European competition in 2018-19. This is really important for us,” says Kreissl.

In England, the Europa League is looked upon as a relatively unimportant competition, but it is good to hear that clubs across the continent place great emphasis on it. “Being in Europe is a dream for us – yes, we hear that in some countries they do not take it so seriously, but that is our aim. If that is the Champions League, it will be fantastic, but we will also gladly welcome the Europa. We had two great games against Fenerbahce this season and narrowly went out, but it was a good experience, and of course, European football brings in much needed revenues.”

This season, Sturm Graz have won twice in Vienna (3-2 at Austria Wien and 2-1 at Rapid) and have beaten Salzburg (1-0 at home). They are four points clear of Salzburg and seven ahead of third-placed Linz. A long way to go, but the “Blackies” have good momentum from the first phase of the 2017-18 campaign.

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