It wasn't a great tournament for Austria, writes Paul Joyce

The author Thomas Bernhard once remarked that the typical Austrian always distances himself from his country. By the start of Euro 2008, however, this distance had given way to a morbidly self-ironic fatalism. As the national side plummeted to 101st in the FIFA rankings, thousands of fans signed an online petition demanding Austria’s withdrawal from the tournament for crimes against “aesthetic beauty”. Spoof Euro 2008 T-shirts and Y-fronts bearing the motto Zu Gast bei Verlierern (A Guest of the Losers) sold like hot cakes.

Yet the need to distance themselves from Germany proved to be an even stronger part of the Austrian collective identity. After Ivica Vastic’s injury-time equaliser against Poland, the nation was gripped by the prospect of knocking out the Piefkes, as Germans are disparagingly known, in the final group match and thus eclipsing the tediously over-hyped 3-2 victory over West Germany in Córdoba at the 1978 World Cup. The magazine Österreich listed 20 reasons to dislike the Germans, while the press agency APA claimed that Austrians were better in bed.

Although defeated in Vienna by Michael Ballack’s free-kick, the Austria team received a standing ovation for their committed, high-tempo performance. Expectations had been so low that a return of one point and one goal from three group games was viewed as a success. And Emanuel Pogatetz had managed not to get himself sent off.

Yet many remarked that emerging with the worst record of any European Championship host represented a huge missed opportunity. National coach Josef Hickersberger blamed “the curse of Córdoba” for the stagnation in Austrian football since 1978. “The Austrian FA genuinely believed that they didn’t need to invest in young players, because natural talents like Prohaska, Krankl or Schachner would be born each decade,” Hickersberger observed. Despite the emergence of young talents such as György Garics and Ümit Korkmaz, the squad notably lacked mature leader figures such as Ballack – and goalscorers of any age. Others blamed Hickersberger, who resigned after Austria’s exit, for taking too long to introduce some much needed tactical variety to replace domestic clubs’ ­ossified 4-4-2.

Acceptance of the tournament as a whole was also mixed. Although 74,000 fans packed the fanzone in Vienna to watch the Austria’s showdown with Germany, a mere 6,500 turned up there two days later to see Spain play Greece. Having paid up to €40,000 for the right to sell overpriced food and drink in the fanzones, a quarter of the 86 Viennese stall-holders handed their licence back as turnover was 90 per cent lower than expected. Although business was better in Salzburg and Innsbruck, a fanzone in Klagenfurt was closed down after only 100 supporters turned up on the first Monday. “We’re not a host city, we’re a ghost city,” one stall owner observed. Klagenfurt’s hotel industry also suffered, as fans booked rooms for one night only and the region’s regular tourists stayed away altogether.

Expectations that fans would visit Austria’s cultural facilities proved equally misplaced. Vienna’s natural history museum had 50 per cent fewer visitors during the first week. Experiments with Sunday shopping backfired dramatically, as Austrians stayed away from town centres, put off by media scaremongering about hooliganism.

However, Austrian fans did attempt to recreate the celebratory mood of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Traditionally uncomfortable with public displays of patriotism, Austrians tentatively reclaimed the national flag as a symbol of a modern, inclusive Austria. Yet the absence of British teams from the tournament meant that this has gone largely unnoticed by the UK media, who remain obsessed with the contents of Josef Fritzl’s cellar. The discovery of the 95‑year-old Croat war criminal Milivoj Asner wandering freely through the ­fanzone in Klagenfurt also allowed the Sun to bring up the Second World War once more. But then again, the fatalistic Austrians probably never expected anything better.

From WSC 258 August 2008

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