AUSTRIAN football has been dominated by Red Bull Salzburg in recent years, but the city of Mozart has a long way to go before it can match the record of Vienna, in terms of trophies won and influence on the game.
Salzburg’s corporate football may represent the zeitgeist in being backed by the beverage company Red Bull, but despite having significant financial advantages from this relationship, the heart of the Austrian game belongs to Vienna.
The beautiful city has many distractions to compete with football, but it played a pivotal role in the development of central European football, combining one of the quintessential elements of the ornate capital, coffee houses, with intellectual inspiration to stamp its own style on the sport.
Football in central Europe flourished in cities like Vienna, Prague and Budapest, driven to a large degree by the Jewish communities and the liberal bourgeoisie, and by learned folk who were full of invention about the way the game should be played. Moreover, in Vienna, the sport’s popularity grew in working class areas where the city’s industrial workforce was concentrated – places like Favoriten, Hütteldorf and Medling.
Walk around the very affluent streets of Vienna today and it is hard to imagine it was once the percolator of progressive football in Europe. Sadly, compared to its heyday of the 1930s, and its late-1970s resurgence, Austria is something of a backwater.
It is easy to stumble across culture and academia in a city like Vienna and it’s a rather nice idea that bohemian scholars and the artistic element played their part in developing the Danubian approach to football in the inter-war years. Sit in Café Central on Herrengasse and slurp a mélange and you might just conjure-up images of pencil-bearded professors debating the W-M formation or the exploits of Das Wunderteam – perhaps alongside representatives from the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists.
Football’s a simple game, but those of us who like to think it is more than an old pig’s bladder being kicked around by ruffians gain some satisfaction from the belief that a higher order, a more cerebral world of soccer intelligentsia, exists somewhere beyond the terraces and stands.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the cognoscenti thrived in Vienna, a city that provided stimulation in abundance. There’s no football connection to be found in Café Central, or any other of the Viennese coffee houses today – Café Holub and Café Parisfal were both popular football haunts in days gone by – but it’s a warming thought as you scoop the frothy milk off your finest Arabica that you may be sitting where history may have been shaped.
The talisman of coffee house football was Matthias Sindelar, a charismatic figure who perished in suspicious circumstances in 1939, probably at the hands of the Nazis. Visit Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof cemeterytoday and you will find that Sindelar’s grave receives fresh flowers on a regular basis. His flame burns on in Viennese literature, too, as captured in Friedrich Torberg’s poem, Auf den Tod eines Fußballspielers (On the death of a footballer).
Sindelar played for FK Austria Wien, Die Veilchen (the Violets). They reside at the Generali Stadium, better known as the Franz Horr Stadium in the south of Vienna. FK Austria were last champions in 2013 but like their rivals, Rapid, have been pushed aside by the rise of RB Salzburg. In 2018-19, they finished fourth in the second stage of the Bundesliga and qualified for the UEFA Europa League, but their European campaign ended at the first hurdle, losing to Apollon Limassol in the third qualifying round.
They’ve not had the best of starts to the new season and after four games had just four points. Christian Ilzer is in his first season as coach of the club and already people are starting to question his methods. Ilzer came from Wolfsberger, but never stays too long in one place.
FK Austria have recently signed on loan the American centre back Erik Palmer-Brown from Manchester City. Most new arrivals in the summer have been free transfers and returning loan players. The only fee involved was the € 300,000 paid for Klagenfurt’s Benedikt Pichler.
The club attracted 10,000 per game to the Generali last season, a 48% increase on 2017-18. The best supported club in Vienna, indeed Austria, is Rapid, who averaged 16,000 in 2018-19.
Whereas FK Austria were always considered the club of the middle class, Rapid were very much favoured by the city’s working class. Rapid have been champions 32 times to FK Austria’s 22.
If there are “fanatics” among Austrian football’s patrons, they exist in the suburb of Hüttelsdorf, an area that is far removed from the dainty elegance of the Habsburg 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 down-to-earth area, as evidenced by the graffiti sprayed by the “Ultras”.
Rapid rebuilt their stadium a few years ago, demolishing the old Gerhard Hanappi and temporarily relocating to the Ernst Happel in the Prater Park. The new ground, which has a capacity of 28,000 cost € 53 million to build.
Rapid didn’t have a great season in 2018-19 and lost two promising players in Mert Müldër and Boli Bolingoli to Sassulolo and Celtic respectively. Notable arrivals includes Japanese striker Koya Kitagawa and Max Ullmann from LASK. Kitagawa, who netted six goals in 20games for Shimizu in the J-League last season, has yet to play for Rapid as coach Dietmar Kühbauer is waiting for the 23 year-old Japan international to adjust to his move. Another new signing, Greek striker Taxiarchis Fountas, has bedded-in well, scoring four goals already this season. Rapid have started reasonably, with one defeat in their first four games, but already, everyone is chasing Red Bull Salzburg.
Vienna is more than just FK Austria and Rapid. Students of European football will remembers clubs like Admira Wien and SC Wacker Wien, but these clubs have been absorbed in the club that is now known as FC Admira Wacker Mölding, who are in the Bundesliga and from the small town of Maria Enzersdorf in the district of Mölding, some 14 km south of Vienna.
In the 21stdistrict, Floridsdorfer AC are currently in the second league. This is the club that discovered former West Ham United striker Marko Arnautović, who is now plying his trade in China. Floridsdorfer have won the Austrian title just once, in 1918.
Vienna was once awash with clubs and the oldest, First Vienna, was founded in 1894 by workers from the nearby estate of Baron Rothschild. The club is based in the Döbling district of the city at the Hohe Warte Stadium, which was Austria’s principal stadium until the Prater was built. First Vienna started life as a cricket and football club, but they were Austrian champions six times between 1931 and 1955. They also won the Mitropa Cup in 1931 with a team that included Josef Blum, an uncompromising defender who became part of the Wunderteam. First Vienna play in much humbler company these days but won the Wiener Stadtliga in 2018-19.
FC Hakoah was an all-Jewish club that, for a short time, became the talk of Austrian football. Jews were at the heart of central European football’s development, notably Hugo Meisl, the mastermind of the “whirl”, a forerunner of “total football”, and the creator of the Wunderteam.
Hakoah proudly wore the star of David on their shirts, long before the Nazis made a badge of incrimination out of it. They were a shrewd bunch and were the first club to make use of marketing themselves, at home and abroad.
The club was established by a cabaret artist, Fritz Loener (who later perished in a concentration camp) and was based on the “muscular Judaism” concept preached by Max Nordau, calling on Jews to demonstrate their vitality. It was not easy for Hakoah, who would often take the field to taunts of “Jewish pigs” from anti-semites. Hakoah won the Austrian league in 1925 and then went on tour to the United States, where they captivated the Baseball-hungry Americans. In 1938, the Anchluss put paid to FC Hakoah, but the club, now known as Maccabi Vienna FC, is alive today and they’re back at their home close to the Prater Park.
Prater Park has always played a part in the development of the game in Vienna. That’s largely due to the football stadium, which is now known as the Ernst Happel Stadium. The park is also famous for the huge wheel featured in the movie, The Third Man. The stadium, which bears little resemblance to its original appearance, has hosted four European Cup finals (1964, 1987, 1990 and 1995), and also six games in Euro 2008.
Vienna may not be an influential metropolis today in world football, but its role in the evolution of the European game cannot be denied. Furthermore, it is one of the continent’s most appealing cities, an intoxicating mix of the old and the new. And it is growing, the population is around 1.8 million but it’s rising at a rate of 20,000 people per year. The challenge for Vienna’s football fraternity is how to entice some of the new arrivals into watching Austrian Bundesliga games rather than turning to the likes of Bayern Munich.
Photos: PA/ Game of the People