The enduring romance of Mitteleuropa’s football

THE BUDGET airline revolution made Continental Europe very accessible for tourists and football fans alike. A return trip for barely more than £100 has made it possible for the curious spectator to extend his or her horizon beyond the 92 and non-league. As a result, we have seen the arrival of the football tourist, map-wielding obsessives who go in search of foaming beer, floodlights and fun.

A year or two ago, I bumped into a Brit from Macclesfield at PSV Eindhoven. The following day, coming back from Feyenoord, I saw him again. We had ploughed the same furrow, a Dutch double bill. We nodded at each other, acknowledging our spirit of adventure, we intrepid members of the cognoscenti.

An element of the happy wanderer is in all of us. Some are inspired by the books of people like Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh Fermor, but from a football perspective, I look to the Rough Guide to European Football (which I helped with back in the late 1990s), Simon Inglis’s Football Grounds of Europe and regular helpings of World Soccer.

The 1966 World Cup broadened the minds of many people to the idea of European football, although Real Madrid had done a pretty good job when they lit up Hampden Park in that famous European Cup final of 1960. For many of us, European football looked as though it was played in the dark – when English teams played abroad, the photos invariably looked as if they had been taken in a pitch black stadium, such were the technical limitations of the age.

As we became more accustomed to European competition, words like “aggregate” and “away goals” became part of our vocabulary as we welcomed the relative exotica that was European club football. We learned that some English clubs, when travelling abroad – particularly behind the “Iron Curtain”, a grey, totalitarian world comprising bread queues, ersatz coffee and vodka – took their own food and, sometimes, a chef (such ventures provided great photo opportunities for the likes of Monte Fresco and other tabloid snappers). When European teams visited London, we greeted them as if they were visitors from outer space.

We now know that Russians do not have two heads, that Frenchmen do not cycle around in Breton shirts with onions draped around their neck like baubles, and that Italians and Spaniards are not the only people in Europe that use garlic in their cooking.  Reassuringly, we are aware that Germans do not stalk the streets of Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt dressed in lederhosen. Well, not all of them, anyway. Likewise, we’d like to think that our neighbours across the English Channel no longer believe we all wear bowler hats in London.

Removal of stereotyping is one thing, but the romanticisation of the body Europe is another matter, especially in the time of Brexit and a floundering European Union. Some of us have always been Europhiles, feeling a slight twitch of anticipation in the bowels at the thought of cobbled streets, cloisters, dark rye bread, church bells ringing and the hum of a tram snaking its way through Austro-Hungarian streets or down broad Gallic boulevards. And oh yes, peculiar floodlights signposting the way to the nearest football stadium.

Of course, for every quaint “altstadt” or historic centre, there is municipal ugliness and standardisation, or in the case of old Soviet states, drab concrete homes for the proletariat – all against a backdrop of financial hardship and marginalised economies. You see very little of that in the travel brochures, although a trip to a football ground more often than not takes you to parts of town that are off the tourist trail.

Students of the game will be aware of the importance of central Europe its development. It’s a region that has a number of interpretations and boundaries, but to me, it is all about Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary with guest appearances from Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. Germany is also central, but I have always regarded Germany as just that – Germany.  Poland is also frequently included but is often viewed as the far east of Europe.

Trans-European travel has always had an idealistic, somewhat romantic side to it. Getting on a train in Paris and ending up in central Vienna fills some people with excitement and satisfies any spirit of wanderlust. But getting off that train and heading to somewhere like the Ernest Happel Stadium in the Prater Park makes it even more appetising.

Walk around the very affluent streets of Vienna today and it is hard to imagine that it was once the percolator of progressive football in Europe. Austrian football today is a backwater compared to its hey-day of the 1930s and late-1970s resurgence and having seen Austria take on Hungary in Euro 2016, it is clear that Unsere Burschen are very average these days.

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. I have sat in Café Central in the heart of the Austrian capital, slurped a mélange and conjured up images of pencil-bearded professors debating the W-M formation or the exploits of Das Wunderteam – perhaps alongside the learned folk of 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 intellectual stimulation in abundance. There’s no football connection to be found in Café Central or any other of the Viennese coffee houses today, but it’s a warming thought as you scoop the whipped milk off your finest Arabica that you may be sitting where history may have been shaped.

It is part of football’s rich heritage, however, that the names of Austrian teams like Rapid Vienna and FK Austria Wien live on in the game’s folklore. They’ve both been overtaken in modern times by the likes of Red Bull Salzburg, a case of new lamps for old, but we will always remember Rapid, if only because of their unusual name. Rapid were not the club of café society, though. That privilege belonged to the violet shirts of Austria Wien, a favourite of Vienna’s Jewish community. This made them a target and the club was persecuted as National Socialism swept Germany and Austria.

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 today 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).

In those inter-war years, the best teams in Europe not only came from Austria, but also Hungary and Czechoslavakia. Just as in the 1970s, the Dutch and Germans developed a Western European style that would dominate, the old Habsburg Empire stood head and shoulders above the rest of Europe. This was partly attributable to the coming of professionalism but also the innovations of one Hugo Meisl, the coach that “invented” the Mitropa Cup.

The Mitropa brought together clubs from the region with the first competition, in 1927, including two teams apiece from Hungary, Austria, Czechoslavakia and Yugoslavia. It wasn’t the first time that such a tournament had emerged, for going back in time, the Austro-Hungarian Cup took place between 1897 and 1911.

I caught a glimpse of the Mitropa Cup when I visited Budapest’s Ferencvaros and became quite animated with excitement at the sight of a cup that represented the first real attempt at a cross-Europe competition. In its day, between 1937 and 1939, it was won four times by Hungarian teams, three times by Czechs, twice by Italians and four times by Austrians. That competition, along with the Latin Cup, was one of the forerunners of the European Cup.

If football fans can sometimes get misty-eyed about the heritage of the game, railways often invoke similar sentiments among nostalgists. Vienna to Budapest is a three hour journey today, linking two cities that were at the heart of one of the most powerful empires in European history – the architecture of the Hungarian capital tells you that much.

Budapest was once one of Europe’s football capitals. Sadly, that is no longer the case and Hungary’s status is much diminished from the glory days of the Mighty Magyars. In 2015-16, Ferencvaros won the Hungarian league for the first time since 2004 becoming only the second club from Budapest in the past 13 years (MTK were the other, in 2008) to lift the title.

Naturally, the aura surrounding Hungarian football history is down to the 1953 team that thrashed self-appointed world champions England. Ferenc Puskas is so legendary in Hungary that even folk with the same first name, who may never have seen or known of the “Galloping Major”, feel honoured to be called Ferenc. There’s no more symbolic feature of central Europe than the Danube, and from the Buda hill that overlooks the river, reached by the Castle Hill Funicular, you can just see the distinctive floodlights that tower over the old Nep Stadion, now called the Ferenc Puskas Stadium.

Vienna has its Prater, but Budapest’s Nep strikes fear in English football historians, the ground where the Magyars beat 7-1 in 1954. A giant socialist bowl in its day, it was in poor shape when I visited, crumbling and in need of more work than might be financially viable. But just walking around this iconic edifice of football history revived the ghosts of the past. So sad that it could not be saved.

That said, there is great momentum in bringing Hungary’s football stadia up to scratch. Fradi have their gleaming green home on the main drag into town from the airport.

Hungary’s recent history has been so bereft of highlights – Euro 2016 was an unqualified success – that 1953 is still remembered fondly, although there can be few people who were around at the time. There’s a bar in downtown Budapest called 3:6 named after that game at Wembley. It is in an area that looks a little run-down and bohemian and when I visited it, I had to check that it was still open. It was once owned by Nandor Hidegkuti, the famous deep-lying centre forward. The elderly chap manning the fort was engrossed in his newspaper and a filthily strong cigarette – I must admit, he reminded me of my own father when he ran a social club – before he looked up to see us standing in his doorway. We asked about the Hungarian team and he swept his arm across the room, pointing to a statesmanlike photo of Hidegkuti and some yellowing press cuttings. We forced a bottle of beer out of him and didn’t outstay our welcome, heading for the nearest restaurant for some goulash.

It’s not difficult to conclude that Hungarian football is way off its glory days. The Mighty Magyars were effectively killed off by the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Iron Curtain, and although during the 1960s and 1970s, Hungary’s best sides were difficult, Glasnost signalled the long decline of the game in one of its heritage nations. It’s hard not to feel sad about this, but Hungary is certainly not alone in this context.

If there is an air of romance about Budapest’s Danubian landscape, then Prague – the other member of the Habsburg triumvirate –  is the classic tourist destination. Like Hungary’s domestic football, the Czech Republic has declined since Europe’s map changed. Unlike Hungary, where Budapest clubs had to make way for provincial rivals, football is dominated by the capital: Sparta, Slavia, Bohemians and Dukla. Sparta are the Czech Republic’s Manchester United, if there is such a thing, but clubs like Bohemians and Dukla have more of a cult following. And these two clubs also offer something more than a standard football ground setting – Bohemians’ Dolicek ground is surrounded by housing and perched high on Dukla’s ground, you get a fantastic view of the city of Prague.

Like Vienna, Prague’s footballing brains discussed their ideas in the coffee houses across the city, especially the smoky environs of Cafe Slavia, which still exists today. Czech football between the two world wars was richly entertaining and the Czechs were strong on the international stage, reaching the World Cup final in 1934.

My abiding memory of discovering Prague was limping through the cobble-stoned side streets after tripping over as I left my taxi and finding myself staring right into the window of Sparta Prague’s club shop in the heart of the old town. I had been deep in conversation with a taxi driver who had explained to me that Czech football was a bit “Kafkaesque”. The pseud in me liked this reference, but at the time, Dukla were playing outside Prague, which seemed somewhat strange. Later, in a Prague cellar-cum-restaurant (Hungarian, by chance), I engaged in conversation over some fine Czech beer with a Slavia Prague fan who spouted conspiracy theories by the dozen as to why Sparta dominated Czech football. Perhaps Kafkaesque was a good description, after all.

As it stands today, the football of Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary has seen better days. It’s hard for them to compete when you’ve got the all-consuming leagues from England, Spain and Germany. But there’s something very special about the capital cities of these central European countries that deserves to be preserved, and I not just talking about ornamental spires, ornate bridges, majestic rivers and bowls of goulash. I have been accused of being an arch-romantic when it comes to travel and to football. I’m afraid my critics are correct. Messrs Sindelar, Puskas and Masopust…your names live on.

The author’s book on football in Europe, Mittel, is available here


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