Euro Diary ‘08

A Personal Account of Football Fever Throughout Austria and Switzerland

Spanish football fans support their team with distinct flair at the Fan Zone | Photo: C. Cummins

VR journalist A. Valjak ready for a Croatia game | Photo: A. Litschka

Austrians hope for an unlikely victory during the Austria-Germany game | Photo: Christian Cummins

A couple is seperated by the Fan Zone gates | Photo: F. Guendel

Visitors cool off under sprinklers provided by the Fan Zone | Photo: C. Cummins

German fans taunt Austrians at Stephansplatz while police stand guard | Photo: F. Guendel

Cans litter the streets of the 1st district after a game | Photo: F. Guendel

Christian Cummins followed every game of the European Championships for Austrian radio station Fm4. This is his snapshot diary of three weeks of summer madness:

 

Spanish football fans

Spanish football fans support their team with distinct flair at the Fan Zone | Photo: C. Cummins

Friday, June 5th

It’s Euro 2008 minus 2 days – to use the bizarre UEFA-speak that is floating around the media center. The official Fan Zone around the Ring is still fenced off and you just hear the whirring of generators and the scurry of feverish last-minute preparations. It sounds so exciting and enticing, but Viennese are a famously hard population to impress. The cool, overcast weather is matched by the mood of the locals I interview. Student Wolfgang, already lugubrious at the grand age of 24, tells me that the city will be full of what he describes as “beer corpses.” Others describe the upcoming festival as “commercialism in meltdown.”

And the closing of a section of the Ring to traffic has gone down particularly badly. The busy but still flowing diverted route has turned into a bedlam of honking horns and aggressiveness. No one here likes to have their trusted daily routes interrupted, whatever the reason. In front of my nose, a frustrated van driver appears to accelerate to mow down a cyclist at a crossing in front of the MuseumsQuartier.

 

Sunday, June 8th

I’m walking through the sun-streaked green canopy of the Prater forest to the Ernst Happel stadium to watch Austria’s first match, a tricky fixture against an accomplished Croatian team. The particular charm of these Euros is dawning on me.

The sun is finally out and we stop in the shade of a temporary beer stall in the Jesuitenwiese (Meadow of the Jesuits) to drink a few cold beers with fans from both sides. A gregarious Austrian man paints my cheeks and the bar’s stoic landlord hands me a free flag, saying that he is “waiting for (his) heart to be broken.” The lack of faith in the national team has created a refreshingly tongue-in-cheek brand of patriotism.

After a disastrous start, conceding a penalty in the opening minutes of the game, Austria settles and plays surprisingly well. It’s a 1-0 loss but no one seems depressed. 100,000 fans party in the centre of town at night and there are only eight arrests – seven for drunken brawling and one of them for stealing a Lebkuchen-Brezen snack.

 

VR journalist A. Valjak

VR journalist A. Valjak ready for a Croatia game | Photo: A. Litschka

Tuesday, June 10th

The Fan Zone is a melancholy place on another overcast afternoon. Particularly for the landlords, who have spent tens of thousands of euros renting beer stalls. Some are threatening to close. Students, who were relying on their summer jobs pouring beer, face being laid off. This is all very sad, of course. But it seems that it was a naive assumption that fans would buy Danish beer for 4.50 Euros in a plastic cup, when they could get cheaper and, many appear to think, better beer in glasses around the corner. You can’t sit down anywhere in most sections of the Fan Zone – it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that that might be a problem. Call me heartless, but fans staying away seems to me like a triumph of common sense over rampant commercialism.

Thursday, June 12th

Vienna has been transformed. Central European gravitas have been exchanged for an almost Mediterranean insouciance. Drivers stop their beflagged cars and shake hands with complete strangers on the curb. Red-white-red huddles stagger across the roads.  “You’d think they’d won the whole damned tournament,” mutters a scathing German. The crowds are celebrating a 1-1 draw between Austria and Poland – a European Championship point for Austria rescued by a last-gasp penalty from 38-year-old Ivica Vastic, after a rather generous refereeing decision by Englishman Howard Webb.

But it was the German media that had been constantly – patronizingly – decrying the lack of atmosphere, nothing like their World Cup “summer fairy tale.” Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Earlier this week we were told that “Austria’s don’t know how to let themselves go.” Yes they do!

 

Austrian fans

Austrians hope for an unlikely victory during the Austria-Germany game | Photo: Christian Cummins

Monday 16th June

Holland is playing brilliantly! It’s the return of the Dutch “total football” of the 1970s, according to the more enthusiastic papers. Surely the “Oranjes” can go all the way. The Spanish, with their so-called “ticky-tacky” passing football, look promising, too.

But all eyes in Vienna are on the big match – Austria vs. Germany. Austria has to win to qualify. It’s unlikely, of course, but a fixture that features prominently in the Austrian football dreamscape. It’s 30 years since the Austrian team beat Germany 3-2 in the World Cup in a provincial Argentinean town called Cordoba, and no one in Vienna is going to let that match be forgotten. Corpulent men have squeezed into ill-advisedly tight red T-shirts reading “We Are Cordoba,” whatever that means, and papers on both sides of Austria’s northern border have been revelling in national stereotypes. I’ve been reading about “arrogant Germans” and “mouthy Austrians.”

In comparison with the build-up, the 90 minutes of football are rather forgettable. A scrappy match is decided by a screamer of a free-kick from German captain Michael Ballack. As I cycle home from the editing room at 2 a.m. a crowd of German fans is standing in a residential street bawling out “Football isn’t a winter sport!” It’s the rough guide in how to lose friends and alienate people.

 

Fan Zone gates

A couple is seperated by the Fan Zone gates | Photo: F. Guendel

Thursday 19th June,

I was intending to travel to co-host Switzerland to experience things there, but Euro exhaustion has taken its toll. It’s hot now, and I’m suffering from a severe deficit of sleep. So I have made a compromise with myself, and am watching the Germany vs. Poland quarterfinal from a deckchair at Swiss Beach, the triangle of sand and hedonism by the Danube Canal, formally known as Strandbar Herrmann. There is a big screen, huge amplifiers and a lot (and a mean A LOT) of German football fans. Their team, revelling in darting one-twos and fiendishly clever running, is playing like Portugal. The Portuguese defense – based on transfer value, the most expensive in the tournament – is playing like Baden U15’s. It’s a brilliant spectacle and ends 3-2 to Germany. “We’re going all the way!” I’m told by my new German friend (Michael or Martin, I didn’t quite catch it), who I hope will release me from a rather sweaty bear hug soon.

 

Euro Fan Zone

Visitors cool off under sprinklers provided by the Fan Zone | Photo: C. Cummins

Friday 20th June

I’m in Ottakring – the immigrant district of Vienna and tonight the big night as Turkey takes on Croatia. The streets of the 16th and 17th Districts are already full of face-painted fans by lunchtime, chanting away and waving flags. It’s a carnival atmosphere. The Croatians are confident it’s going to be their night; and with nine points in their three group matches, their confidence seems justified.

But as children and romantics know, anything can happen in football – and particularly when Turkey is playing. Fatih Terim’s men lost their first game against Portugal, left it until the 92nd minute to beat Switzerland, and needed two Nihat goals in the last two minutes against the Czechs to book their place in this match. They are the tournament’s escape artists. The Brunnenmarkt, an outdoor market area, is a miniature Turkey, but the Ottakringerstraße is certainly Croatian territory – awash with red and white chequered replica-shirts. I, the consummately objective reporter that I am, watch the game in a street that separates the two worlds. A sort of safari truck is beaming the match live onto the wall of a café.

There’s a huge police presence in the 16th District. Rows of police vans always give me a slight tinge of uneasiness and sense of foreboding. But it has to be mentioned that is a quite relaxed presence. A couple of smiling officers pop in and out of our small café, chatting with the owner and checking the score. In the end, it appears their presence is sadly needed. After a boring game looks to have been won 1-0 by Croatia, Turkey equalises with the last kick of the game and then dramatically wins on penalties. Frustratingly, this appears to have become the trigger for some very distasteful and violent clashes on Ottakringerstrasse only metres from where I’m standing, resulting in several injuries and at least 11 arrests.

The spilling out of frustration seems a shame after such a festive and tolerant evening. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Most of the celebrations were wild, but peaceful. In my café, for example, a Turkish fan held a disappointed Croat friend in his arms. Fans from the opposing teams shake hands. We all know how cruel football can be.

It’s loud on my walk home. Hooting cars, driven by Turks, make laps of the narrow streets (two of them sadly running into each other before my eyes and causing traffic havoc!) and Turkish fans pull drums and even flutes out of nowhere. I watch in delight as fans in Croatian regalia dance to the Turkish-drummed rhythms – a wonderful show of spirit.

 

German fans

German fans taunt Austrians at Stephansplatz while police stand guard | Photo: F. Guendel

Wednesday 25th June

It’s 11.50 p.m. Ottakring is eerily silent – there’s hardly a honk to be heard. The Turkish dream is over – seemingly swept away in the monsoon-like thunderstorm that has engulfed Vienna, embarrassingly interrupting the global television signal and leaving hundreds of thousands of fans across the globe with little to do but stare at an apologetically empty screen. The Germans have won the semi final 3-2 (6 goals in 2 games! Most unteutonic!). What we saw of the game was absorbing – the Turks, depleted by suspension and injury played bravely and brilliantly – the Germans were unsettled but clinical in their finishing.

The Fan Zone has been evacuated as 80 kilometre-per-hour winds joined the torrential rain. I’m hearing from friends at the Swiss Beach that the German fans refused to take shelter – and earned themselves a free round of beer from the owners.

 

Littered 1st district

Cans litter the streets of the 1st district after a game | Photo: F. Guendel

Sunday, June 29th –

Everything has that strange, “last page of a good book“ feeling today. Can’t wait to find out how the story ends, but that will also mean it’s over. Will Germany win a record fourth European Soccer title? Or can the Spanish national team end 44 years of hurt, and earn its first silverware since the 1960s?

The weather is giving the tournament a good send-off – there are cloudless blue skies and a scorching sun over the Fan Zone around the Ring. Few of the 40,000 German fans who have made the trip down for today’s match remembered to pack their sunblock. A lot of red-faces – or maybe it’s just the excitement. Or the beer. To help them cool off, the authorities have set up a series of sprinklers in front of the Parliament, which make a fine diversion. They are also urging the fans to take on plenty of fluids –sensible advice that has clearly been wilfully misinterpreted by the fans. After three weeks of moaning, the concession stands are finally getting that lake of excess beer off their hands.

Spanish fans are outnumbered by Germans – around 15,000 have flown to Vienna – but in terms of silly hats and chanting they are clearly holding their own. I even met two men from Madrid wearing red and golden Tyrolean Lederhosen.

As the sun goes down, the game finally begins. I watch it on a giant screen opposite the Hofburg, which is lit pink by the dying sun. After a nervous start, the Spanish start to dominate and after 30 minutes, striker Fernando Torres scores a goal. The German fans go quiet as their team can’t quite get control of the game.

The Spanish fans are ecstatic, but don’t dare believe it yet. Last time Spain won a major tournament, Josef Klaus was Austrian chancellor and television was black and white.

Then suddenly, it’s over; the dream comes true! The Spanish fans explode in joy. At 2 a.m. as I traipse home, the Fiesta is in full flow. But at Manolo’s, a Spanish bar on the edge of the Fan Zone, Germans too are throwing themselves into the party, singing along blissfully and tunelessly to “Viva España”! It’s vibrant and full of humor – a fitting end to a tournament we’ll long remember.

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