Vanity affair

wsc303Jörg Haider’s attempts to use football to further his own political career led to the destruction of three Austrian clubs, writes Paul Joyce

The Austrian state of Carinthia (Kärnten) is best known for being the political stronghold of Jörg Haider, the right-wing populist who died in a car accident in 2008. That the region is less well known for its football is also Haider’s legacy. The attempts by the former governor of Carinthia to use local sport as a publicity tool led to the demise of three different clubs and a series of criminal investigations.

In 2000, Haider became president of second division club FC Kärnten, which was based in the state capital of Klagenfurt. Previously known as Austria Klagenfurt, the club had changed its name and colours in 1999 to create a broader Carinthian identity. FC Kärnten were initially successful under Haider, gaining promotion to the Bundesliga and winning the Austrian Cup in 2001. “Jörg Haider wasn’t really interested in football,” recalled local businessman Josef Loibnegger. “His employees used to tell him the score. If FC Kärnten were winning, he would come to the stadium ten minutes before the final whistle to receive the applause.” After relegation in 2004, Haider fell out with the club’s management and quit two years later.

FC Kärnten’s slump threatened Haider with a loss of prestige. He had successfully lobbied for Klagenfurt to be one of the host cities of Euro 2008 and turned the opening of the city’s impressive 32,000-capacity stadium into a personal publicity coup. With no top-flight club available to play in the modernised Wörtherseestadion after the tournament, Haider bought the Bundesliga licence of FC Superfund Pasching in June 2007 and moved the club 350 kilometres southwards from Upper Austria to Carinthia.

The recipients of the licence were not, as expected, FC Kärnten, but a new team – SK Austria Kärnten. To make matters worse for the old club’s fans, a deal hastily drawn up in Haider’s office meant that FC Kärnten were required to cede their main sponsor and youth academy to Austria Kärnten. Unable to compete with their powerful new rivals, FC Kärnten went out of business in January 2009.

Haider used his position as governor of Carinthia to persuade businesses to invest in his new project as a means of securing local government contracts. It has emerged that Telekom Austria bought tickets for Austria Kärnten worth £400,000, allegedly to enable the privatised company to purchase the telecommunications branch of the city of Klagenfurt at a reduced price.

Despite such powerful support, SK Austria Kärnten struggled for acceptance from the region’s football fans. Haider filled the boardroom with political allies, including his wife Claudia and club president Mario Canori, who by his own admission “knew nothing about football”. In their three years of existence, the club frittered away £25m, before filing for insolvency in June 2010 after being refused a professional licence. Canori blamed Haider’s death in October 2008 for the demise: “His death meant that the financial source dried up. He would have carried on organising it. It was his club.” However, according to Austria Kärnten’s liquidators, the club was already insolvent by this time.

In June 2010, Austria Klagenfurt were relaunched in the regionalised third division with the aim of making a clear break with the recent past. “We won’t give away any tickets to politicians and we won’t have official welcomes in the stadium,” club president Josef Loibnegger promised. Yet in June 2011, his team became the third Carinthian club in four years to enter insolvency proceedings, despite an investment of £580,000 from the city of Klagenfurt. Agreement was reached with the club’s creditors in October, yet its future still seems precarious.

The Wörtherseestadion’s prospects also remain in doubt. The original plan was to reduce its capacity to 12,000 after Euro 2008, which would still be more than enough for Austria Klagenfurt’s average attendance of 700. But after protracted disagreements over financing, reconstruction work has yet to start.

The temporary seats in the upper tier can no longer be used, which means the international friendly between Austria and Finland in February 2012 looks set to be Klagenfurt’s last major event for some time. “It is both a catastrophe and an embarrassment that Euro 2008’s most beautiful stadium is no longer available,” said Leo Windtner, the president of the Austrian Football Association.  

After Haider’s death, Freedome Party politicians suggested that the stadium should be renamed the Jörg-Haider-Stadion as a “visible legacy of Haider’s achievements as governor of Carinthia”. Unsurprisingly, this idea has been quietly forgotten.

From WSC 303 May 2012