The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Riding the Pink Train

Posted by steigs on June 6, 2008

Euro 2008 kicks off tomorrow.  Alas, I won’t be there.  I haven’t managed to arrange my life so that I can jaunt off to the tourney for a week like I pulled off in 2004.  But awhile back I did catch a game at the stadium that will host the final in Vienna on June 29th:

I’ve gotten to soccer games in a variety of ways — subways, driving my car, the bus, hiking up a hill.  This, I conclude, is undoubtedly the coolest.  M. and I are riding a mini-train — the “liliputbahn” — to the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna.  And, to make it even better, the train is pink. 

 

We are bound for an important Austria Wien game — Wien being German for Vienna — against Olympique de Marseille.  It is the first leg of a two-game playoff for a slot in the lucrative Champions League group stage.  The kid-sized train is rolling along through the Prater park, packed with men chugging beers and reliving their childhoods.  Woo-woo! 

Want to hear more about that, along with a quick trip through Austrian soccer history?  (Really, they used to be good, despite the current national team being so pathetic as to generate a petition to withdraw them from Euro 2008 to avoid embarrassment.)  Read on!

Vienna  — August 2003

  

The train zips through meadows and stray clumps of forest in the park along the Danube.  It’s night and rain is threatening.  However, the giddy mood overcomes any possible concern about getting drenched.  Woo-woo!

 

We have just spent an afternoon at the famous Prater amusement park, an old-school carnival park like something from a 1950s movie.  M. and I played ski-ball while nearby kids tried their luck with ring-tossing and shooting games.  The park has modest roller coasters, sickening spinning rides, and arcades with names like “Daytona Beach.”  There was even a log ride of the sort I loved as a child.  We saw a lot of purple Austria Wien replica jerseys as we explored the amusement park.  Talk about a boy’s dream day — an amusement park and then a game!

 

No amusement park is complete without fun food and we found some delicious fried dough treats —fengos” — before taking a ride on the immense Ferris Wheel.  An initial burst of wind and rain rattled the park while we were in line for the Ferris Wheel.  Luckily, the Ferris Wheel had enclosed ancient wooden cars, not the usual open-air baskets, so we enjoyed an atmospheric view of Vienna in the rain.  By the time our ride ended the weather had improved, if only for a little while.

 

As much fun as the Prater is, it is hardly the usual tourist fare of Vienna.  Central Vienna is stately and packed with high culture.  Glamourous cafes.  (M. recommends Demel, where the chocolate is made fresh daily.)  Monumental left-over palaces.  Sprawling museums.  Touts dressed as Mozart or Beethoven pitching classical musical concerts.  Art galleries of glittering decadence, featuring the likes of Gustav Klimt and his well-known “Kiss.”  Operas, not arcades.  Symphonies, not ski-ball.

 


During the day it had been quite hot, almost as sultry and sweaty as New Orleans, and the outdoor cafes in downtown’s St. Stephensplatz had been packed.  There remains a feeling of long-gone power in Vienna, an air of frozen grandeur, as if the owners of a rich estate moved out awhile back and things haven’t been the same since — just tenants left to maintain what the nobles left.  We tend to think of Austria in terms of The Sound of Music, as being a cute Swiss-like mountain land, but Vienna was the heart of a massive empire for centuries.

 

This was made clearer at the Schonbrunn, the Habsburg summer palace in Vienna’s suburbs, where we toured the overwrought palace and the fantastical gardens.  Paths going every direction through the grounds, giving way to sheltered groves where courtiers schemed and loved.  Today they are left to children for scampering and seniors for admiring. 

 

The cult of 19th century Empress Elisabeth of Austria is in full swing at Schonbrunn.  Elisabeth was the wife of long-reigning Emperor Franz Joseph and was beautiful, stylish and troubled.  An anorexic who soon tired of her staid workaholic husband and was mistreated by her mother-in-law.  The Princess Diana of the Hapsburgs, in essence, whose unhappy life ended when she was murdered by a madman in Geneva in 1898.  The Schonbrunn gift shop is a shrine to the Elisabeth — books, dolls, the works. 

 

M. has a fit of feminist annoyance at this.  She wonders why Empress Maria Theresa doesn’t get more respect and attention.  She actually ran the Austrian empire for years in the 18th century.  In fact, Maria Theresa built a zoo at Schonbrunn to keep her husband amused while she was busy with policy.  For traditionalists, she was happily married and had a huge litter of children.  Wouldn’t she be a better role model for today’s “have it all” women?  Alas, Maria Theresa wasn’t beautiful or troubled.  No dolls for her.  M. can’t even find a biography of her in English in the gift shop.  The feminists of Austria clearly have work to do.

 

The Schonbrunn era ended with World War I, the empire of the Hapsburgs disassembled in the aftermath.  Mighty Austria reduced to a rump disgruntled remnant, although Vienna remained a vibrant intellectual stew with the likes of Freud and Musil.  These days the city has embarked on a second career as host for international agencies, a neutral, non-threatening place, a rather radical change from the days of the Hapsburgs running Prague and Budapest and Sarajevo and…

 

A thunderstorm feels imminent as the liliputbahn lets us off at the Ernst Happel.  The pressure in the air is tangible.  The flags are whipping in the wind.  Now I had bought tickets in advance through the Austria Wien website, a complicated endeavor since it was puzzled by an American address.  So we just needed to find the Austrian equivalent of “Will Call.”  We circle the stadium, asking for guidance and trying various windows.  Just don’t rain yet! 

 

There isn’t much around the stadium.  The Ernst Happel is in the middle of a park, not a neighborhood.  A few kiosks offer food or souvenirs.  We’re too busy trying to get inside before the rain hits to browse.  Ah, this is the window.  I collect the tickets and we enter just as a gentle rain begins to fall.

 


The teams are already on the field, the game about to begin.  Austria Wien look royal in their purple shirts and shorts.  They have some justification for this look, having a proud history.  However, their glory is more historical than contemporary.  The Austrian league, known as the Bundesliga like their German neighbors, is nothing much these days — not even the champion gets directly into the group stage of the Champions League.  No Austrian team has challenged for the European Cup in recent times.  It is a good showing these days for one to make it to the group stage of the Champions League.

 

Austria Wien play the bulk of their games elsewhere in Vienna, in a much smaller stadium, using the Ernst Happel only for grand occasions.  They are on an upswing at present, taking the championship last season, their first in a decade.  It was their 22nd Austrian league title, which rightly suggests a team that had a lot of success back in the day. 

 

During the 1930s, probably the peak of Austrian soccer, Austria Wien won a pair of Mitropa Cups — a championship for central European teams in that era — and provided much of the Austrian national team’s powerful “Wunderteam.”  This Austria team, for example, hammered Scotland 5-0, back when that meant something.  Between 1931 and 1934 the Wunderteam lost only two games.  Unfortunately, one was a 1934 World Cup semi-final to host Italy on a muddy field at the San Siro.  Austrians, of course, believe this was due to referee bias, which given Il Duce’s behavior and Italian traditions, isn’t entirely out of the question.  The Wunderteam played the “Danubian style” — short passes and attacking wingers.  The biggest Austrian soccer star of the Wunderteam was Matthias Sindelar, who also played for Austria Wien.

 

Sindelar was a forward, a goal-scoring machine, nicknamed the “Man of Paper” for his ability to slip through defenses.  (A “Man of Paper?”  Maybe it sounds better in German…)  In 1938 came the Anschluss, when Nazi Germany took over Austria.  Sindelar, near the end of a long career, refused to play for the new “Austro-German” national team, claiming an injury.  The new authorities did not take this well and when Sindelar died of carbon monoxide poisoning soon thereafter, well, rumors that it was no accident began and have lingered over the decades, only adding to the glamour of Sindelar.  There were a reported 15,000 lining the streets of Vienna for his funeral.

 

Since the Wunderteam, Austria has only made the occasional appearance in the international soccer spotlight, sometimes managing to qualify for the World Cup but rarely winning much once there.  To quote the Rough Guide on the Austria performance at the 1998 World Cup:

 

…and in France Austria would prove a good argument for greater African participation — a highly defensive team had neither the wit nor the work-rate to nick a result against Italy in their final game, after last minute goals against Cameroon and Chile had put them in with a shout of qualifying.”

 


Austria is set to co-host (with Switzerland) Euro 2008, with the final to be held at the Ernst Happel.  Perhaps this will inspire their team.  In the meantime, they’re best known to American fans for losing a friendly to the US in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup, a game where US coach Steve Sampson was trying out a controversial 3-6-1 formation.  As a result of the victory, Sampson used the tactic during the World Cup…where we lost all three games and were officially in 32nd place of the 32 teams in France.  If only Austria had played better against us, them maybe he wouldn’t have gone with the 3-6-1 and we would have been less embarrassed.  If only.  Instead, Sampson hears chants of “3-6-1″ to this day from opposing fans whenever he’s got a coaching job in the US.

 

M. and I get to our seats just before kick-off.  A light rain is falling now but we’re sheltered by a roof.  The seats are good — second tier, about the 30 yard line.  The Ernst Happel is a vast old bowl with three tiers of seats and a running track around the field.  The only seats occupied in the third tier are the sole section of Marseille fans, a noisy lot.  We had seen them downtown earlier in the day and around the Prater, drumming and singing, wearing a variety of supporter club t-shirts that appear to relate to the section of the stadium the clubs occupy back in Marseille.

 

The seats along both sides of the field are mostly filled, at least for the first two tiers.  The real action is behind the goal to our right, home to the Austria Wien ultras.  I suppose it is a tribute to English fans that so many of the groups have English names on their banners —Maniacs,”Gladiators,”FAK Fighters,”Alcatraz” and so on.  They are making a decent noise, perhaps inspired by the Marseille support high up behind the opposite goal.

 

While Austria Wien are in their purple, Olympique de Marseille — often known as OM — are in white with light blue trim.  It is a good look if you are a winner.  Marseille are another club with a proud history.  Well, mostly proud — their sole European championship in 1993 was marred by a match-fixing scandal and the team is still recovering from the downfall of their wealthy patron of the time.  I identify a few players with my program, like Mido of OM, a moody young Egyptian forward, recently joined from Ajax.  Helpfully, the descriptions of the Austria Wien players are in French and those of the Marseille players are in German to assist the respective fans in learning about their opponents.  I’m not much good with either language but M. and I figure out the basics, like who scores goals.

 

It’s a good thing we reached our seats on time.  Marseille scores only four minutes in.  The young Russian forward Dmitri Sychev runs onto a well-placed through pass at the edge of the box and knocks it past the Austria Wien goalie.  1-0 to the visitors!  A perfect start on the road, especially since “away goals” are the first tie-breaker.  The Marseille supporters section kicks the jams up a notch as a wave of derisive whistles washes over the Austria Wien team.  The disappointment is palpable.  “We got our hopes up for this,” you can see the home fans thinking with disappointment.  Our section is subdued.  There are three guys in their 20s next to us in full anguished/anxious fan mode, muttering with due passion about the failings of their team.

 

The game quickly settles into a pattern it will hold for a long time — Austria Wien attacking, OM defending and counter-attacking.  It goes like this:  Austria Wien build the attack gradually, passing the ball around in search of an opening.  Then OM disrupts the passing and attempts to move downfield quickly, usually through a long pass.  Now and then Austria Wien manages to get a ball deep into a corner and then comes the usual cross into the box.  This produces a couple of shots but nothing that unduly worries the OM keeper.  Austria Wien does better when they pass the ball rapidly.  That happens rarely, perhaps because of OM’s speedy counters after mistakes.  Austria Wien’s one real chance to score is actually an apparent handball in the box — penalty! — which goes uncalled, much to the annoyance of our neighbors.

 


As the first half wears on, the home fans grow frustrated with the regular turnovers, whistling after particularly obvious poor passes.  Up in the third tier, the OM fans keep pounding away.  The Austria Wien ultras significantly outnumber them and when they get going, usually after their team manages a shot or even just strings together a decent series of passes, they are louder.  They also get irritated by the OM keeper’s glacial pace in arranging and taking goal kicks.  It does strike me as rather cocky to be time wasting with a one goal lead in the first half of a two game series.  The Austria Wien fans let loose piercing whistles each time he goes into his ponderous routine.

 

M. decides one Austria Wien wing defender, Ernst Dospal, has a “Regis problem.”  That is, like the former US national team player David Regis, he is prone to joining in the attack and then being overly leisurely in making his way back to his defensive post.  M. played defense and is sensitive to such errors.  Me, I’m drawn to the more obvious things, like the way the huge Nigerian center back for Austria Wien, Rabiu Atolabi, disrupts many OM counter attacks by intercepting long passes and skillfully maneuvering the ball away from Mido and Sychev.  I wonder how he ended up in Vienna.  (A bit of Internet research afterwards finds out that he was a star of Nigerian youth teams but had trouble landing a regular spot with teams in Belgium and Italy.)  The most effective Austria Wien attacker is Vladimer Janocko, a veteran from neighboring Slovenia.  He does a decent job moving the ball around.  Judging from the number of kids wearing replicas of his jersey he must often stand out.

 

Vienna has a long history with Slovenia, a country just south of Austria, once a part of Yugoslavia and, before that, a portion of the Austrian empire.  Much of the troubles in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s are an echo of the old wars between Vienna and Istanbul.  The Austrian league may be a second-tier one — at best — but it’s certainly a step up from that of Slovenia.

 

For OM, Mido has little chance to show anything — his team is sitting back and Atolabi is making it difficult to feed him the ball.  The quick Sychev has more of the play, getting the ball at midfield and trying dribbling runs.  OM’s star central defender Daniel Van Buyten, a Belgian, commands the box well.  In general, the OM players don’t appear as isolated as the Austria Wien players.  They look solid defending and in control.

 

The second half starts with more of the same — gradual Austria Wien attack, quick OM counter, Austria Wien recovery (usually through Atolabi) and another gradual Austria Wien attack.  This sounds better than it looks for Austria Wien — there is rarely a sense of threat.  The looming storm has been holding off, settling for a continuing drizzle.  Still, Austria Wien get a shot here and a shot there.  Austria Wien fans, however, begin to whistle at obvious errors by their team — the passes to no one, the over-hit passes that run out of bounds, the crosses directly to OM defenders.

 


All of sudden, around minute 75, the light rain becomes a deluge.  The raindrops dazzle in the powerful stadium lights.  But before it has much chance to impact play it tapers off again.  With ten minutes left in the game I see a fan stroll by with three beers, which I take to be a “guzzle your sorrow away” exercise.  Me, I had picked up a beer at the half and am just now finishing it.

 

Austria Wien does manage to force a couple of saves from the OM keeper, like they are at long last belatedly solving the OM defense.  The OM coach takes off a striker and adds a defender, shutting up shop for the night, content with a 1-0 win on the road.  Austria Wien fans began to trickle out.  Just into stoppage time, OM is called for a foul on the edge of their box.  A dangerous free kick opportunity. 

 

The OM wall assembles.  The crowd rises.  Clapping begins, growing louder.  Last chance!

 

The kick curls toward the upper corner of the goal.  For a heartbeat it appears it will go in.  People start to cheer.  Then they see it hit the signboard — just missed!

 

Ah, well.  Game over.  1-0 to OM.  Austria Wien played okay but OM was always in charge.  Still, it’s a respectable loss.  That quick OM score made it seem like a rout was coming.  Instead, things settled down.  They’ve still got a chance when they go to Marseille.  Not a good one, true.  But a chance.

 

It is drizzling as we depart and line up outside the stadium for a trolley to take us back to the U-bahn.  No sign of the little train now.  Next to us is a boy, maybe six years old, wearing an Austria Wien scarf.  He is happily humming one of the main OM chants over and over, a model of sportsmanship or — more likely — too young to know better. 

 

Are the Viennese now like that little boy, living comfortably while admiring the energy of others?  Vienna often feels like a museum piece, a place to admire wealth acquired centuries ago.  Not all of it, though.  Not if you look a little further.

 

Vienna was the base for the late environmentalist/artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.  (The name, which he chose himself, translates as “Peace-Kingdom Hundred-Water.”)  At the end of our stay, after the game, M. and I ventured out past the Ringstrasse bounding the heart of old Vienna to Hundertwasser Haus, the most iconic remnant of his work.

 

Hundertwasser Haus is a public housing project in the Landstrasse neighborhood a few blocks from the Danube.  You walk along beside classic five-story block-long apartment buildings and then — huh? what’s that? — it hits you.  Hundertwasser Haus is a wealth of curves.  The ground literally rolls around it.  There are a rainbow of tiles spattered on the walls, seemingly at random.  “Tree tenants” stick out of the building here and there.

 

Hundertwasser worshipped the organic.  “A straight line is godless,” he said.  Tenants at Hundertwasser Haus are allowed to paint the outside walls within an arm’s reach of their windows however they wish.  He argued that simple lines deadened people and desensitized them.  So you can’t assume that the wall of Hundertwasser Haus will continuously be the same color or that the sidewalk will be flat.  You have to be alert — you have to be alive.

 


How on earth did someone fund this guy’s design for a public housing building?  Is this a sign of growth and change amid a sea of dead marble and long-gone empire?  Is this the sign of a different sensibility?  A rebellion against the machines and straight lines?

 

It makes sense that it would show up early in a place like Vienna — so much history and so much dead decadence to be provoked by it.  And the people come from all around to see it.  Hundertwasser Haus has become a major tourist attraction.  A hunger for something different, perhaps, or maybe just the desire to see a freak.

 

M. and I circle the Hundertwasser Haus, attempting to capture it on film, like all the other tourists.  M. can’t quite find the right angle.  You can only get glimpses, not the whole sense of it. 

 

Which, I suppose, is exactly the way Hundertwasser wanted it.  Ineffable, unquantifiable, alive somehow.  Even in Vienna, city of the past.

 

  

 

  

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