Ballack chops

AUSTRIA versus Germany is an encounter big on history, and last night’s was big in every sense but the match itself. In fact, the weekend’s local tabloids provided much of the entertainment surrounding this pairing of Euro 2008’s big hearts and big heads.

austria05Cowering in the dank shadow of Germany’s lofty FIFA ranking, which Austrian assistant coach Andreas Herzog insisted ‘they can shove up their arse’, so-called striker Martin Harnik foresaw the favourites ‘coming to the point where they shit their pants’. Harnik, for one, knows what he’s talking about, having striped his strides twice upon sight of the Polish goal last week.

All this scheisse talk may have brought both nations to tumescence, but it failed to arouse a more explicit performance from an Austrian frontline so softcore, no matter how much you craned your neck you just couldn’t ever see anything going in.

It’s three decades since they last eliminated West Germany in similarly unlikely circumstances with three Córdoban goals, and on this evidence it would take them another thirty years to break through just once. In preparation for a quarter final tie with Portugal, Germany ought to consider that they were only marginally superior. Save for Ballack’s decisive school playground toe-banger, they contributed wholeheartedly to ninety clumsy minutes of stray passing and shanked efforts on goal.

austria06Elegance was much de rigeur on the touchline, however, in the form of a hissy fit between German coach Joachim Löw and his Austrian counterpart Josef Hickersberger. Which is the snappier outfit, Löw enquired, my white blouse and shiny trouser combo or the Grandad-of-the-bride thing you’ve got going on? The Spanish referee was uninterested, and sent them both to take turns sitting on Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s soothing lap.

No great exaltations in the end, more relief on Germany’s part and a case of ‘It’s auf wiedersehen from me…’ ‘…and it’s auf wiedersehen from him’ for a spirited, yet average Austrian side whose interest in the tournament outlasted co-hosts Switzerland’s, even if it was by virtue of the Gregorian calendar.

Deutschland (has gotta die!)

austria03TWO injury time strikes, one for Turkey on Wednesday, another from the penalty spot last night, mean Austria’s interest in Euro 2008 has already outlasted that of the Swiss. But for a half-decent centre-forward, Austria would already be sitting in the quarter finals, absent-mindedly discussing their own mothers as objects of libidinal investment over gulps of Grüner Veltliner and lemonade.

After Martin Harnik, twice, and Christoph Leitgeb found goalkeeper Artur Boruc’s knackers a formidable obstacle to goal, the competition’s love of quick breakaways favoured instead Roger Guerreiro, who was not only offside, but has only been Polish for a fortnight.

austria04Howard Webb’s innate English sense of fair play then ensured 38-year old Ivica Vastic had the opportunity to equalise and claim the lifetime’s supply of beer on offer from a local brewery to any Austrian goalscorer. Not far from retirement, Vastic’s strike and subsequent prize means he can spend the rest of his days boring his grandkids about his deteriorating liver and the fact that it was he who brought about next week’s six-pointer with a reeling Germany in Vienna.

In the space of two solid displays, Austria have not only eliminated pre-tournament fears and won the backing of the nation, but now have the chance to progress at the expense of the neighbouring favourites. It just couldn’t get any better than this, could it?

Hosts, and champions

AS ANTICIPATED, both Euro 2008 hosts got underway with defeats, although only one looked out of its depth – and it wasn’t Austria. Written off in most quarters as the tournament’s ‘punchbag’, the onus was on them to come out fighting on Sunday, and what a scrap it was.

Stunned into life by a fourth-minute sucker blow from the penalty spot, Austria went the distance against Croatia, all for nothing but the knowledge that they must follow knocking out Poland on Thursday with something miraculous against the Germans next week.

Salzburg takes centre stage today, as the competition rolls into the city for the first of its three matches featuring defending champions Greece. Don’t be fooled by the broadness of UEFA’s brushstrokes, FC Salzburg’s Stadion Wals-Siezenheim is none other than Red Bull’s glimmering monument to the paradoxes of corporate football, the Bullen-Arena. €60m down the line and still only the second best side in Austria, they supply as many players to the national squad as they do to rival nations, including Croatian captain Niko Kovač.

svas063Meanwhile, in nearby Maxglan last weekend, Austria Salzburg’s kultverein bade farewell to sixth division football with victory over Elixhausen before a Meisterfeier drew another near-perfect season to a close. With the final word on the club’s 75th term which ended, fittingly, three points shy of the available 78, here’s the unique perspective of lifelong Leeds United fan and Austria Salzburg’s English-language website fangler-in-chief.

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.

Philly Billies

sonsofben01REMEMBER the Sons of Ben, hardcore soccerphiles all dressed up with nowhere to go? Well, following MLS’ confirmation that Philadelphia will indeed be the league’s 16th franchisee come 2010, the 1,600 fans of no team now have one, but with no name. So, what frenetic phonetic will frame the future of Philly football? Watch this, erm, fpace.

Having already endured some turbulent episodes in the run-up to co-hosting Euro 2008 (questions asked in parliament of one club’s finances, another putting the league in the dock in an attempt to reduce a points deduction; it’s unbelievable stuff, I know) what the Austrian game didn’t need was for one of its leading sides to appeal against a 2-1 defeat because – wait for it – their dilly-dallying goalkeeper wasn’t ready for the game’s opening goal, a penalty. But that’s exactly what followed Rapid Vienna’s recent 2-1 loss at Cashpoint Altach.

Perhaps without the heat of UEFA’s breath on their necks, the ÖFB would have dismissed top of the table Rapid’s frantic invocation of Game Law 14 – which states that clubs from capital cities aren’t allowed to lose to villages of populations less than 7,000 – as mere sour grapes. However, unbelievably, this league fixture will be replayed in its entirety.

But what can you expect of a governing body which goes against all conventional wisdom and doesn’t even consider Edelweiss’ “Bring Me Edelwiess” as the anthem for Euro 2008? Instead, we have official mascots Trix and Flix featuring Shaggy – yes, that Shaggy – with “Like a Superstar”.

The summer finals’ motto is “Expect Emotions”, which is presumably a disclaimer to the sort of schizophrenic psychosis exposure to this shit induces. I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I think of Austria and Switzerland, I think of beer, yodeling, and bearded midgets frolicking with big titted fräuleins; not two polystyrene-suited dickheads abseiling to the tune of a Jamaican Gulf War veteran.

Put the kettle on

stevemaclarenThey can come from wherever they bloody well like to beat England by passing the ball on the ground, but the simple fact is this: as long as the Earth’s land area is only 57,506,055 m² and the sky reaches to infinity, we’re doing it right. The big man upfront was good enough in 1966, it was good enough in 1066, and it’ll still be good enough in, erm, 2866.

But don’t listen to me. I haven’t followed England since I gave up playing with Lego, enjoying Star Wars, and wanking over the bra section in Kays catalogue. But I know a positive when I see one, and the real upside of the nation’s European hopes going down the drain last week is that they were quickly followed by Steve McLaren’s chances of having a number one hit this Christmas.

According to Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s book, The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), to take the first step on the road to chart success, “you must be skint and on the dole”. In his unerring pursuit of the latter, McLaren foolishly overlooked the former.

Believe it or not, Euro 2008 will go ahead without England. Until then, the answer to the question that’s been on everyone’s lips since McLaren bit the dust becomes clearer by the day. It’s obvious who should record UEFA’s theme song for next summer’s tournament: Edelweiss.

trixandflixNot only does their excremental 1989 hit ‘Bring Me Edelweiss’ fulfill each of UEFA’s bullshit brand criteria for the tournament by consolidating references to Austria and Switzerland’s indigenous mountain flora and all sorts of other lazy Alpine half-arsery into one big pulsating mess, but it owes its existence to the ex-KLF frontmen’s aforementioned blueprint for pop stardom.

Come to think of it, what could possibly be better than an opening ceremony in which Drummond and Cauty, having sacrificed effigies of mascots Trix and Flix high in the Swiss Alps, travel to Vienna to machine-gun the real things with blanks just to see the looks on their foam faces? There’s only 191 days until the big kick off, UEFA. Make it happen.

The shame of Gijón

It’s twenty five years since the Austrian national side made any sort of impression on a major tournament. In the 1982 World Cup, their meeting with West Germany was in the knowledge that a 1-0 victory for their neighbours would secure passage for both sides into the second round.

gijonThe mutually-beneficial game of keep-ball that followed the West Germans’ early opener prompted widespread cat-calls from a cross-section of the Gijón crowd. As the odd flag burned, pockets of Algerians, angered at the cynical manner in which their nation was being eliminated, were kept from a field of play ringed by police officers with dogs.

West German coach Jupp Derwall, who coincidentally died this week at the age of 80, justified the anschluss with the words: “we wanted to progress, not play football.”

Which brings us to this evening. Also distracted by results elsewhere and keen to progress without playing much football, Steve McLaren’s England face an Austrian outfit neutered by a two-year absence of competitive fixtures.

In a date no-doubt intended at its fixing to be an ice-breaker for next summer’s competition, Steve McLaren will step into the Ernst Happel Stadion, the venue for its final, dreaming of a Viennese waltz but knowing he may soon wake up in a whirl.

Bus fare home

As the familiar air of helpless dismay causes Britain’s talk radio station switchboards to short circuit, fans further afield are saying ‘enough is enough’ slightly more proactively.

Forsaken the need to qualify for a tournament they have never before graced, Austria’s national team have not so much been warming up, as melting down. Without a win this year, a section of embarrassed fans have called for the side’s withdrawal from Euro 2008.

The ‘Österreich zeigt rückgrat!’ (Austria, show some backbone!) campaign foresees a competition enriched by the absence of a side who, just this month, lost meekly to the clockmaking bankers next door.

In America, swimming similarly against the tide are The Sons of Ben, dedicated followers of a football club which doesn’t exist. Adopting a ‘build it and they will come’ outlook, the Philadelphians are trying to persuade Major League Soccer bigwigs to conjure up a brand new team in the city.

As if to prove that the lack of a side of their own is no obstacle to healthy rivalry, they recently took themselves to New York to give their unattached colours an airing and, more understandably, bad-mouth the locals.

rbny007In a corner of East Rutherford, the concrete shithole they call home, Red Bull have spent this season bringing a whole new meaning to the term ‘average attendance’. Despite reaching the climactic play-offs beloved of American sport, soccer crowds at Giants Stadium have been so underwhelming, its 80,000 capacity will next season be capped at just 15,000.

By comparison, tomorrow’s opponents – play-off hopefuls LA Galaxy – often see extensive queues outside their 27,000-seat Home Depot Center, although many of those probably turn up mistakenly anticipating a decent deal on shelving units.

As if those figures aren’t enough to turn Red Bull green with envy, when LA brought David Beckham to town it attracted what Jim Bowen might have called a ‘here’s what you could’ve won’ gate of over 66,000.

It would be appropriate if he had, because Beckham – like Bully’s Star Prize – has otherwise been about as much use to LA as a speedboat in a council flat.

Neither of the regular readers of these pages will require introduction to Austria Salzburg’s have-a-go heroes, and will be delighted to learn that the side will head the country’s sixth division into the winter break with a game to spare.

A hard-earned victory at former leaders Obertrum preceded three, four, and five-goal drubbings of Hof, Liefering, and Salzburg – who not only share a city with our violet friends, but play on an old stomping ground of theirs.

Ever the innovators, themed fan events have lately seen a Bavarian-style Oktoberfest and a Mexican chill-eating contest stretch Austria Salzburg’s two portaloos to the limits of their capabilities.

A proposed English football theme day will shortly do likewise, as the club’s ownership is taken from fans and placed into a range of anonymous offshore trusts, just for the sheer hell of it.