From the Stands

An Affectionate Memoir of Viennese Soccer From an American Academic

Ferenc Puskas: the greatest footballer of his day | Photo: Der Standard

Hungarian football star Ferenc “Ocsi” Puskas in action on a pitch in Vienna | Photo: Der Standards

Ferenc Puskas

Ferenc Puskas: the greatest footballer of his day | Photo: Der Standard

The very first time that I came into contact with Viennese soccer was as a little boy in my birthplace of Timisoara, perhaps better known by its Hungarian name of Temesvar. My father was – as many Central European Jewish men of his era – a huge football fan. His dream was to leave his native Satu Mare (Szatmar) and travel to Vienna to pursue his studies at the Hochschule für Welthandel (School of Business and Economics). He only made it as far as Budapest where he enrolled in 1930 to study business administration, concluding with a doctorate in late 1937.

In Budapest, he became a rabid fan of the blue-and-white-clad MTK with which most Jews identified at the time – and still identify to this day. Enemy number one were Ferencvaros, sporting green and white as their club’s colors. MTK had a bourgeois, center-city and – thus – disproportionately Jewish following, Ferencvaros – or Fradi for short – attracted fans that were decidedly proletarian, from the industrial suburbs of Budapest, non-Jewish and often virulently anti-Semitic, in their chants if not always in their deeds.

As a little boy, I heard many stories of numerous MTK – Fradi derbies which my father attended during his student days. During one particular heated clash between these fierce rivals, he was beaten up by Fradi fans and denounced as a “dirty Jew”. I could still feel his rage twenty years later, his sense of humiliation undimmed by time.

Budapest and its football world – so similar in many ways to Vienna’s – became a reality to me in the early 1950s from my father’s stories. And then there was Vienna – the distant place that my father and I did not reach until later. Vienna was the home of the football clubs Austria and Rapid: one purple (close enough for me to MTK’s blue), decidedly urban, middle class, coffeehouse connected, and supported by many of the city’s middle class Jews; the other green, working class, decidedly un-Jewish with a clear tinge of anti-Semitism.

In the thirties, Austria had a star, Matthias Sindelar, arguably one of the greatest players that Austrian football ever produced and surely one of the great players of his time. My father had seen Sindelar play in Budapest, for the legendary Wunderteam managed by Hugo Meisl.

Sindelar’s phenomenal skill enchanted my father, perhaps as much as anything for the “Papierene’s” (Sindelar’s iconic sobriquet) persona as a sort of honorary Jew. His antipathy for the Nazis was legend and he committed suicide in 1939 with his half-Jewish Italian girlfriend. And although more recent Sindelar historiography seems to have shed some doubt on Sindelar’s anti-Nazi feelings being a key reason for his suicide, my father knew nothing of that during his lifetime and it would decidedly not have mattered to him anyway. Nothing would have dimmed his unbounded admiration of this great player.

And then there was Hakoah Wien, [see The Vienna Review, April 2008] the Jewish sports club that, with its attaining the Austrian championship in 1924/25 and the very first European club to beat an English side on its home pitch (in this case West Ham United) , attained a near-divine stature to my father’s Central European Jewish contemporaries. But unlike Austria, Hakoah had long since disappeared, part of an extolled past that – for me, at least – bore no reality.

And then there was the radio, my sole link to the world of soccer beyond Stinta Timisoara. Via the voice of Hungarian broadcaster György Szepesi, I listened to a number of  derbies between the Hungarian “golden team” and the Austrians among whom I became familiar with players such as Walter Zehmann, Robert Dienst, Ernst Happel and  “Ingenieur Gerhard Hanappi”. I remember being as stunned as a boy in Romania, just as I am as an adult in the United States, that the Austrian obsession with titles did not stop at the edge of the soccer pitch. And it was most certainly by virtue of the academic title that my father admired Hanappi and saw him as a kind of faux Rapid player, a cultured middle class man who somehow – almost by mistake – stumbled into this proletarian club with its thuggish and anti-Semitic fans.

In early September of 1958, my father and I arrived in Vienna with two suitcases in hand. My mother had died in May, and Vienna was going to be a way-station on our journey to America. So here we were, totally dislocated, in no man’s land, waiting to leave for the “Promised Land.” Of course, we decided to go to the Wiener Stadion –

for the first time in our lives – to see the legendary Juventus Turin featuring world-class players like Omar Sivori, and Giampiero Boniperti play the Wiener Sportklub in the European Champions Cup tournament. We had never heard of Sportklub, but we would never forget how they destroyed the Italians 7 – 0.

On that fall evening in the Wiener Stadion, my very first game under floodlights, I became an instant Sportklub fan.

A few weeks later, my father and I had dinner with some Hungarian Jews who had arrived in Vienna in the wake of the 1956 Revolution and were “veterans” of local football culture. When I told them about Sportklub, the man of the house informed me quite sternly of Sportklub’s Nazi past. Thus, a Jew had absolutely no business rooting for such a team. I was crushed.

Of course I was always aware of being a Jew on Vienna’s football grounds and always ready to experience some expression of anti-Semitism. With the exception of a few unpleasant moments at Rapid’s home ground in Hütteldorf during some particularly heated duels with Austria, I experienced nothing close to what my uncle had been regularly subjected to in the late 1920s and early 30s when he studied medicine in Vienna. Nor what Michael John and Matthias Marschik describe in their fine study of anti-Semitism in the contemporary Austrian sport scene.

But then, Austrian football is no different from other countries in Europe and perhaps even a bit less explicitly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and violent than its counterparts in Italy, Germany, Holland, Poland, Croatia, Hungary, and England, many of which I have experienced myself. Such behavior has become the rule in European football, the dark side of Europe’s allegedly cosmopolitan outlook. To be sure,

I frequented Vienna’s football grounds when – barely 15 years after the Holocaust – Jews still enjoyed a kind of protected era in European discourse, which was to disappear most decidedly by the mid 1980s at the latest.

The Praterstadion furnished for me a welcome space of internationalism – at least on the playing field, if not among the spectators. Even then I was struck by a fascinating juxtaposition – even contradiction – in sport, where the world of the game and the players was more open, international and cosmopolitan than the world of the fans, which emphasized the tribal, local and atavistic as it does to this very day.

Here I will only mention a few instances. I remember attending a match between Austria and Italy in the 1960s at which my father’s and my eyes caught the talent of a young Italian player named Gianni Rivera. Still a teenager at the time, Rivera’s football genius was readily visible to anybody caring to notice. From that moment, Rivera remained one of my favorite footballers of all time.

Feren Puskas

Hungarian football star Ferenc “Ocsi” Puskas in action on a pitch in Vienna | Photo: Der Standards

An avid collector of autographs, I also admired the great Didi and recall waiting in line for the players of a visiting Botafogo team from Rio de Janeiro where he was featured along with the magician Garincha, the only player with an even greater amount of improvisational genius and aesthetic panache than the great George Best of my beloved Manchester United.  In fact, I still have my Didi autograph which – for some odd reason – appears on the page directly facing the opera singer Hilde Gueden’s.

And then there were two unforgettable games at the Praterstadion: The first was in May 1961 between Rapid and the Bela-Guttmann-led Portuguese champion Benfica Lisbon in the return leg of the European Championship semifinals. Benfica had easily defeated Rapid 3 – 0 at home at the Estadio da Luz and was heavily favored to advance. But Rapid – egged on by its fanatic fans – used football’s immeasurable asset, the home field with its “twelfth man” (the cheering supporters) to its advantage and scored an equalizer at the very beginning of the famed Rapid “Viertelstunde”, the rousing last fifteen minutes of every game. The crowd went wild and when the referee gave Benefica a penalty following a controversial call, the place exploded and the game ended before regulation time. I remember rooting with terrible intensity for Benfica against Rapid and was probably the only person who left that cauldron of a stadium elated that evening.

Lastly, I fondly remember attending the first European Club Championship final ever held in Austria on May 27, 1964 between Inter Milan, led by the iron-fisted Helenio Herrera, possessing the dubious distinction of having invented the efficient but far from attractive defensive-oriented “catenaccio” style of football and a declining but still potent Real Madrid featuring such football Gods as Alfredo di Stefano, Francisco Gento and that old major of the Hungarian army Ferenc “Öcsi” Puskas.  Real was the holder – already then – of five European championships and playing in its seventh title game having lost its sixth to Guttmann’s Benfica in 1962.

With the help of two fabulous Sandro Mazzolla goals, the “Nerazzurri” from Milan won the game quite easily by the score of 3 – 1 and thus followed in the footsteps of their hated cross-town rivals AC – the “Rossone ri” – who, led by Gianni Rivera, had won the championship one year before by beating Benfica in the final.

A major event in Vienna’s postwar sports history, this game was also the first – and only – match which I did not attend with my father. I went with Daphne Scheer, the first serious romance of my life. After having taken her to the Forum Kino in the Stadiongasse to watch “Lawrence of Arabia,” I had hoped that going to this pedigreed match would prove the depth of my affection – which I think she appreciated even though the fine points of the game seemed to pass her by. Long after our romance had ended, we remained friends until her untimely death at the age of 50.

It was in the spring of 1967 that I last went to a football match in Vienna. After my permanent departure that summer, I somehow never made it back to any games during my rare visits from America. Perhaps it was the association with my father and the hundreds of hours spent on those fabulous grounds so long gone, the intense pre-game anticipation followed by the incessant post-game analyses, which provided me with an emotional closeness and serenity that I was never to find with my father, or anybody else, ever again.

Dedicated to the memory of my father, Ludwig Markovits, and Daphne Scheer, a friend forever missed.

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