Don’t mention it

IF EURO 2008’s Group D is the designated “Group of Death”, one wonders what Group B has in store. In addition to Austria, Germany, Poland and Croatia, there’s an almighty elephant in that room, it answers to the name “the war” and as Basil Fawlty discovered to his cost, there’s rather a lot to keep stumm about.

Austria’s scheduled meeting with Germany in Vienna comes little over 70 years after Hitler’s troops marched on the city to welcome his homeland into the Reich. From a mere sporting perspective, the 1938 Anchluss represented a crossroads for two nations experiencing shifting fortunes on the pitch.

austria01The onset of the decade belonged to Austria’s fabled Wunderteam, but they were pipped to 3rd place at the 1934 World Cup by Germany. That day, both sides stubbornly wore near-identical home colours, Austria having to change after the referee’s patience expired with half an hour on the clock.

Relations between the unified factions would be just as fraught. The 6:5 nationality ratio the Führer enforced upon manager Sepp Herberger’s selections was the source of much irritation; both Germans and Austrians aghast at having to share not only colours and a pitch, but ideas and objectives, too.

For a start, their playing styles clashed, Austria’s short passing entirely at odds with the German running game. Then there was the issue of personality, with each camp insisting the other didn’t have any. Just about the only thing they had in common was a love of boiled cabbage, but even today they can’t agree on what to call a tomato.

The war over, Austria and its football re-emerged with 3rd place at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. As Herberger was inspiring Germany to win the tournament in “the Miracle of Bern” by insisting to anyone who would listen that “der ball ist rund”, their semi-final victims Austria were mindful of much more than solid geometry: independence, neutrality, and complete footballing anonymity.

austria02That is, apart from a miracle of their own: Córdoba. In the Argentinian city, Austria defeated West Germany and knocked the defending champions out of the 1978 World Cup. “Goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, I’m going crazy,” cried commentator Edi Finger following Hans Krankl’s decisive brace. “And now it’s ovveeerrr! The end! Finished! Over with! Germany are beaten, ladies and gentlemen. After 47 years, Austria have finally beaten Germany again.”

By contrast, the less said about the two nations’ shameful 1982 World Cup non-event in Gijon the better, save that final group fixtures kick off simultaneously these days, just in case the pair decide to get all mob-handed again.

In his second spell in the Austrian hot seat, Josef Hickersberger knows what it feels like to put one over on the neighbours. The Córdoba veteran’s initial stint, however, saw him select one of only two international line-ups ever to lose to the Faroe Islands.

Much of the squad draws upon Bundesliga clubs and is therefore devoid of household names, though there are a few familiar characters. Middlesbrough’s Emanuel Pogatetz, the sort of man who looks like he’d be more comfortable playing in head-to-toe stonewashed denim, will attempt offer some form of protection to ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Alex Manninger. Believe it or not, Martin Hiden is still going but Wigan Athletic’s Paul Scharner isn’t.

Beneath the rot-weiss-rot facepaint, Austrian hopes for their first ever Euro finals this summer belie a side which recently looked nervous even with a three goal lead over the Dutch, and conceded the same figure in defeat to who else, but the Germans.

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