Monday, June 16, 2008

Austria dreams of a 'Cordoba 2'

EURO 2008: Austria v Germany, Ernst-Happel Stadion (Prater) Vienna

Austria owes a lot to Howard Webb.

If he had not awarded a last-gasp penalty (and he was well within his rights to punish repeated Polish shirt-tugging in the box), Austria would already be out of Euro 2008 and the nation would have reverted to its staid indifference to all things bacchanalian and tribal.

How fortunes hinge on the merest of moments.

Webb’s courage saved EURO 2008 from another loss of blood following Switzerland's exit and the Austrian economy has benefitted to the tune of many a Euro, shifting the red and white souvenirs and surplus beer that had been ordered.

200,000 fans are expected in Vienna’s fan mile on Monday night but the real figure could be higher.

After failing to win their two opening games, Austria has the luxury of one last chance to make it to the second round. They could have been blessed by easier opponents than Germany to overcome, but any chance will do.

Add to that the historical significance of the clash, and Monday night at the Ernst-Happel Stadium is all the more anticipated.
"We wanted a final and now we have got one!" beamed the Austrian FA President Gigi Ludwig.

"Our country will come to a standstill on Monday at 8.45pm. Germany v Austria is our biggest football match for years."

When was Austria's last big football match? Their World Cup qualifications in 1990 and 1998 ended in the first round, in 1982 the second round. Memories of the Wunderteam, who reached the World Cup semi-final in 1934 and the Olympic final two years later are dusty.

So you would have to plump for 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, when they reached the semi-final in Basel, and lost to Germany...

Americans may find it hard to understand, but once again, international football crosses the boundaries of sport and enters the field of national identity. How does one sum up the Austrian attitude to Germany? Or indeed, who and what are Austrians?

The country is officially only 90 years old, forged from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War One.

Vienna was the centre of a vast central European empire for hundreds of years, an empire which looked east and north instead of west to Germany.

While Tyrolean Austrians might superficially appear Bavarian with their lederhosen and felt hats, that is only one region of the country and the capital is further east than Prague or Zagreb. Austria is therefore the last ‘Western’ country, sticking out into Eastern Europe.

True, they are linguistically German, but ethnically have a lot more Slavic and Swabian blood than the Germans have in them. Nevertheless, the Austrians were the only people who cheered the Nazis invading their country in World War Two and today have strong economic bonds with their big neighbour to the West.

But the people are keen to forget their wartime record and the fact Hitler was Austrian, preferring to honour their 'liberators' with a vast war memorial to the Russians in Vienna: The statue, which dominates Schwarzenbergerplatz is nicknamed, 'The Monument to the Unknown Rapist'.

The tourism industry prefers to focus on Austria's cultural heritage: The land of Mozart, Freud, Haydn, Schubert, Mahler and Strauss, the Vienna's Boys Choir, Symphony Orchestra and Opera, the Spanish riding school and the grandeur of the numerous Austro-Hungarian imperial buildings, whose monumental majesty seems out of place in such a quiet and non-confrontational country today.

Austria has re-defined itself post war as an insular, peaceful social democracy without the problems Germany has witnessed including terrorism, mass immigration and integrating another country. The standard of living is famously high, another reason to stand apart or perhaps above, their neighbours.

In clichéd terms, the Viennese coffee house appears more refined than the Bavarian beer Keller, and while coach loads of Germans holiday in lower Austria, the locals never return the compliment.

But thousands of German fans have flooded into Vienna for the big match, conspicuous by their replica shirts and un-Austrian accents. ‘Deutschland’ is ringing out in the city’s streets for the first time since the war.

When it comes to sport, there is nothing the Austrians want more than to defeat their big brother. Rest assured, if Germany win in Vienna on Monday night, no Austrians will be happy.
Viennese newspaper Kurrier struggled today with the differences between the two races, calling it ‘the endless duel’.

It concluded Germany beats Austria for beer drinking, education, writers, entrepreneurship and the fact the Pope is German. Austria, however, wins for mountains, lakes, quality of life, food, sex and winning Eurovision.

Austria is not a country which flies its national flag from every building like America, or which gets passionate about an international football tournament like England or Italy.

So if the 8 million citizens of this country wanted to test their national identity, what better way than in a do or die clash with the Germans?

"It’s all or nothing", shouted Kurrier’s front page on Sunday. "Hope lives" said a t-shirt I spotted in town, referring to the game.

"Das Wunder von Wien" (The Miracle of Vienna) screamed a front page on Friday after Ivica Vastic and Webb had kept them alive. "A nation head over heels," "Here comes the reckoning", "The Germans are nervous," and "Vienna must become Cordoba" shouted others this morning.

The significance of Cordoba, which is probably lost on most foreign readers, is that it is the Argentine city in which the Austrians defeated Germany 3-2 at the 1978 World Cup finals, eliminating the holders. Hans Krankl twice, and a Bertie Vogts own goal did the damage.

"Cordoba 78" is being mentioned all over the Austrian press, while rather like their war record, no one is mentioning the stitch up in Gijon four years later.

Germany's Bild Zeitung has retaliated with "Auf WIENERsehen", calling their opponents 'Austrian sausages'.

The Germans, knocked back by the defeat to Croatia, are taking no chances in their pre-match vocabulary: "After our win against Poland I had said that we did not need to fear anybody. Now I think we have to fear even Austria," said Joachim Löw, German national team coach.

"In the Ernst-Happel Stadium on Monday, we can beat any team in the world," proclaimed former Austria star and coach Hans Krankl, awash in patriotism.

But current manager Josef Hickersberger sounded some welcome caution against the euphoria. "We are talking about three times World and European Champions here. Germany is the clear favourite."

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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