The Burden of History
For years, Austrian football has been struggling to live up to its glorious past
A 20-year wait between the soaring heights of Austrian football – evidently that is part of the experience. The Austrian football federation (ÖFB) turned 111 this year and has gone through a lot in its existence. There were triumphs in the 1930s with the world-renowned Wunderteam’s series of wins under Hugo Meisl.
That side was born on 16 May 1931 when Meisl slammed a piece of paper with his selection for the match against Scotland on a table at the Ring-Café, a coffee house on the Stubenring in Vienna frequented mainly by sports journalists. They had talked Meisl round to bringing back the duo of Matthias Sindelar and Fritz Gschweidl. The 5-0 defeat of the Scots was the beginning of a great era of success between May 1931 and February 1933: 6-0 and 5-0 against Germany, 8-1 against Switzerland, 2-1 against Italy, 6-1 against Belgium, 4-0 against France, 8-2 against the “archenemy” Hungary. Even the 4-3 defeat against England at Stamford Bridge didn’t put an end to the hymns of praise. One line from the brawny defender Karl Sesta is still legendary 83 years later. At the team’s presentation the British king told him, “You have a wonderful profession as a footballer.” Sesta’s retort was, “Sie haben a ka schlechte Hack’n, Majestät.” [“Your gig isn’t bad either, majesty,” in Viennese dialect]. But at the 1934 World Cup seven players from the Wunderteam were missing. The dire economic situation had a catastrophic impact on World Cup preparations. In the semi-final, Austria lost 1-0 to Italy thanks to a controversial goal. The match for third place, played in washed-out kits borrowed from AC Napoli, was lost 3-2 to Germany – the birth of the decades-long “German complex”.
Winning silver at the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 with an amateur team was a sensation. On 28 March 1938 the Austrian Football Association (ÖFB) ceased to exist. The organisation was liquidated and transferred to the Deutscher Reichsbund für Leibesübungen, Fachamt Fußball [German Federation for Physical Education, Football Office] in Charlottenburg, Berlin.
During this difficult time Rapid sent strong signs of life from Vienna. In 1941, victory in the German Cup final against Schalke on June 22 in front of 100,000 spectators at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. After being 3-0 down, with four goals in nine minutes. Three of them by the famous marksman Bimbo Binder. On the same day as Germany declared war on Russia.
Four and a half years later, on 6 December 1945, the first post-war international was played on Viennese soil, with Vienna still divided by the four occupying powers. The aged Fifa president Jules Rimet graced it with his presence. With a 4-1 win against France, Austria sealed their return to the international football family. In the absence of a new national anthem the band struck up the rousing march “Oh, du mein Österreich” [“Oh my Austria”]. Two years later, a highlight: a 5-1 win in Vienna over the double World Cup-winners Italy. Talents such as the goalkeeper Zeman, Ernst Happel, the brothers Alfred and Robert Körner, Stojaspal, Wagner, Hanappi and the famous Ernst Ocwirk showed, as it were, the resurrection from the rubble and the chaos of the post-war period, from which emerged a successful team. Their third place at the World Cup in Switzerland was the biggest success to date. As an incentive, the players were promised they could move abroad after the World Cup.
The quarter-final in front of 60,000 spectators in Lausanne against Switzerland is still one of the craziest games in Word Cup history. 7-5 in a heated battle. After 18 minutes, 3-0 to Switzerland; after 34 minutes, 6-4 to Austria; two minutes later only 6-5. The goalkeeper Kurt Schmied suffering from heatstroke in the sweltering temperature before half-time. There were no substitutions. He had to persevere in a trance-like state, staggered between his posts without being able to control his reflexes, didn’t know the score. Next to one post stood the team masseur, conducting him, throwing him soaking wet sponges as refreshment, shouting excitedly, “Kurtl, watch out! They’re coming!” With a lot of luck Austria made it through. For the semi-final in Basel, Zeman was in goal, for the black day against Germany. The 6-1 defeat was considered the biggest debacle in the history of Austrian football and Zeman and Happel had to serve as scapegoats. Some newspapers even claimed that Austria had been bribed by a German industrialist. In Zurich, they succeeded in repairing their reputation with a 3-1 win against Uruguay, in which Ocwirk excelled. The World Cup heroes returned home to a huge reception, carried out of the Westbahnhof in Vienna on the crowd’s shoulders. The prize for third place: not even €3000 in today’s currency.
In 1958 came a Swedish disappointment. Without a win, Austria bade farewell to the World Cup after group stage matches against the winner Brazil, the USSR and England. Because of the high travel costs they did not enter qualification for the 1962 edition. As though in defiance, Karl Decker’s team went on a winning streak in 1960 and 1961 with victories against Scotland, the USSR, Spain, Italy, England and Hungary – the first win in Budapest for 29 years. A temporary high, no more. Then frustration reigned for more than a decade. Highlights such as the historic 3-2 win of a Baby-Team with an average age of 23 at Wembley on 20 October 1965 against England (who then went 19 games unbeaten and were world champions the following year) were the exception rather than the rule. Only in the mid-seventies was there a sense of reawakening. Some seasoned legionnaires from the German Bundesliga, such as Hickersberger, Hattenberger and Jara, and Belgium (Krieger), plus a superb goalkeeper (Friedl Koncilia) and exceptional homegrown talents like Pezzey, Prohaska, Krankl, Schachner and Obermayer made up a constellation that promised success.
And the twenty years of waiting for World Cup participation were promptly followed with a bang. 2-1 against Spain, 1-0 against Sweden – after only two matches Austria were through. And after three defeats (1-0 against Brazil, 5-1 against the Netherlands and 1-0 against Italy) West Germany were also vanquished by Helmut Senekowitsch’s team; the 3-2 victory with two goals from Hans Krankl being enough to send the reigning world champions home and ending Helmut Schön’s career with a failure. The end of the German complex. 5000 fans at the airport in Schwechat when the heroes returned two days after the match in Cordoba. A seventh-place finish at a World Cup has not been repeated yet.
Four years later in Spain, another duel with West Germany made the headlines, but only negative ones. 50,000 fans in Vienna at the team’s departure had underlined the high expectations, but with the 1-0 against the neighbours in Gijon the mood changed completely. After half an hour, the playing of football ceased. Since both teams went through with the result, the match turned into an orgy of passes in midfield. The hoped-for national day of celebration turned into a day of infamy. The 44,000 spectators whistled angrily, waved white handkerchiefs as at weak bull fights; Algerian fans held up banknotes to signify bribery and connivance. Outside of the ground, rocks, tomatoes and bananas were thrown at the team buses. The second round provided no grounds for celebration either – a 1-0 defeat to France, a 2-2 draw against Northern Ireland, a flight home. Back in Austria the people were furious. Fans abused the players’ families. The hero of Cordoba, Krankl, who hadn’t played against Northern Ireland, became the bogeyman and was booed all over Austria (except at Rapid’s home matches) for some time. He still says now, “If the Germans around Paul Breitner, Stielike or Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in Gijon had had any idea how bad and tired we really were, a terrible debacle would have been inevitable for us.”
Of those who had played in Spain, Herbert Prohaska remained to help qualify for the World Cup in Italy in 1990 in three games in the last year of his playing career, but the headlines were made by younger men. In particular there was Toni Polster, seven years after his debut, scoring all three goals in the decisive 3-0 win over East Germany two weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Dreams of the World Cup were already flourishing after friendlies against Argentina (with Diego Maradona) and the Netherlands, but the awakening was bitter. 1-0 defeats to Italy and Czechoslovakia and a 2-1 win against the United States were not enough to progress. 20,000 red-white-red fans in Florence were devastated. But what happened two and a half months later, on 12 September 1990, made Austria the laughing stock of the entire football world. In the European Championship qualifiers they played the Faroe Islands in their first ever competitive match. Because the amateurs from the sheep islands had no grass pitch, they had to divert to Landskrona in Sweden. The goalkeeper Jens Martin Knudsen, in a white bobble hat, held firmly onto the “nil”. The coach Josef Hickersberger had told the players that if they played badly they’d just about win; if they played well they’d win by eight goals. The day after the disaster he resigned. The entire qualification campaign was a disappointment – but then came a new boss and with him new hope: Ernst Happel, now an internationally successful coach, took over in 1992 with the words, “Ok, so, we’re going to qualify.” It was a suicide mission, but that did not deter him. When he accepted the job offer from the federation president Beppo Mauhart, he said laconically, “Well then, let’s have a revolution.” It only lasted 11 months. Happel was terminally ill, passed away at the Innsbruck university hospital on November 14. Just before, he dictated a last message to his life partner Veronika: “I’ve left behind a squad that can be the basis for more development. They just have to do something with it, they have to believe in it. They have to be proud of the national team, have to have an emotional connection, otherwise it won’t work. It was a wonderful year. You’ll see, something will come of it. Tell everyone that.” His successor Herbert Prohaska, appointed as Under-21 coach by Happel, couldn’t manage it for either the 1994 World Cup or Euro 1996, only for the 1998 World Cup in France. Convincing in qualifying, finishing with six wins in a row and in first place ahead of Sweden and Scotland. Again, a similar constellation as in 1978: good legionaries from strong leagues, good goalkeepers, internationally competitive players from the domestic league. But, unlike in 1978, no exceptional talents.
Two 1-1 draws against Cameroon and Chile, both times with an equaliser in the last minute, then a 2-1 defeat to Italy to finish. That was the last waltz in Paris that denied them progress. They were never the wonder boys that Udo Jürgens sang about in the official Austrian World Cup song. Until Marcel Koller led this Austria side to qualify for Euro 2016, Prohaska was the last Austrian manager under whom they managed to qualify for a major tournament. His 51st match as coach was his last. The 9-0 defeat against Spain in Valencia in qualifying for Euro 2000 was the biggest defeat for Austria since the 11-1 loss against England on 8 June 1908 in Vienna. Prohaska didn’t hesitate before resigning: “The coach leaves and the story is done.”
All his successors failed. Otto Baric got as far as the play-off of the World Cup qualifiers for 2002, Hans Krankl managed neither Euro 2004 nor the World Cup 2006; as hosts for Euro 2008 they also reached no heights. One point from three games, then Josef Hickersberger left for the second time. The Czech veteran Karel Brückner took over, left after eight months because he saw no hope for the future. Didi Constantini radically reorganised and rejuvenated but had to leave when, after the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012 was also missed. His successor surprised – nobody had expected the former Swiss midfielder Koller. In the three and a half years under his command Austria climbed from 85th in the world rankings to the top 20, despite missing out on qualification to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He is now Austria’s favourite Swiss. In the first six qualifiers they lost none, won five, three of them away, a victory in Moscow for the first time since 1961. Now the motto is France, we’ll be back! After a break of 17 years.
For Prohaska, who witnessed the ups and downs of Austria as player and manager, the current soaring flight is no surprise. Koller is the first Austria manager to select a starting XI, plus several substitutes, who all play abroad. None of his predecessors could draw on so many. There is an exceptional player again: the 23-year-old David Alaba of Bayern, to whom Constantini gave his debut at 18, and some who have noticeably improved abroad, especially Dynamo Kyiv’s 24-year-old defender Aleksandar Dragovic, who is now being scouted by top European clubs, and the engine of Bremen’s midfield, Zlatko Junuzovic. Prohaska says, “We are now seeing the positive results of a youth program that was initiated ten years ago with academies that keep delivering strong players. Of all the team legionnaires, only three went abroad as youth players: the others got their training in Austria. So it can’t be so bad.” And that’s why Prohaska is convinced that the soaring flight won’t just be temporary this time around: “Something is being made for years to come. It’s not a coincidence that Austria’s youth teams have recently qualified more and more often for World Cups and European competitions.” Of the team that came fourth at the U20 World Cup in Canada seven years ago, six players are in Koller’s core squad. Prohaska says, looking back: “Now the association has enough money to invest in the next generations. That was missing in 1978. At that time we weren’t just being paid in money but also in VCRs and TVs.”
Koller no longer finds the typical Viennese grumbling annoying: he understands and respects its nature. Prohaska doesn’t deny his achievements. “It doesn’t do him any favours to be feted as the messiah. He doesn’t want that either, he keeps a low profile. What was crucial was that he built a squad that he stuck with. No matter what happened to the players at their clubs. I admit, I wouldn’t have had that courage.” The success proves Koller right. The goalkeeper Robert Almer has made more appearances under Koller than for his three German teams – Fortuna Düsseldorf, Cottbus and Hannover – put together. He kept his faith in Marc Janko when he was sidelined by Trabzonspor and trained alone for months. When he attempted a new start at FC Sydney, Koller flew him in without a second thought. Janko thanked him with goals, managed to return to Europe aged 32, signed for FC Basel, the champion of Koller’s native Switzerland, and just before opened the door to France with his 21st goal for his country, an attractive overhead kick for the victory in Moscow. In Austria nobody now doubts him or even Koller.
After this, the players set themselves the goal of finishing the qualifying campaign unbeaten. The last time this had happened was in 1977. They achieved their self-imposed task, impressing particularly in a 4-1 win over Sweden at the Friends Arena in Stockholm, where they had failed to secure a ticket to the World Cup in Brazil two years earlier.
Even Zlatan Ibrahimović congratulated them: “You were the better team!” At 4 o’clock in the morning hundreds of fans were still waiting at the airport in Vienna for the return of the heroes of Stockholm. As a bonus it was followed with a 3-2 win in Podgorica against Montenegro, a 3-0 win against Liechtenstein at the Happel-Stadion – sold out on a Monday night. And with that Austria were in the top ten of the Fifa world rankings for the first time. Koller’s reign began in 77th place.
In Austria nobody now doubts Koller. One thing has never changed in the soul of Austrian football: there is only ever jubilation or desolation. Nothing in between. Right now the hype around the team is greater than it has been for decades. At the end of June, 3% of the population said they believed Austria would be European champions in France in 2016; it has already risen since then.