Vienna Goes American

Cheerleaders, loud music and testosterone-fueled giants; the perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon

The Austrians prepare for a tough game against the Americans at the Charity Bowl on May 30 | Photo: David Reali

It’s Sunday and the sun is shining as I wait for my companions at the Heiligenstadt station. Football fans (that is, American football, not real football) sporting purple and yellow articles of clothing are all around; women, men, tall, fat, tattooed and hippified. Every sort imaginable is there, joining together to celebrate the fun of the rough-and-tumble sport.

As soon as my friends arrive, we head toward the Hohe Warte Stadium, noticing a few drops of rain. Fast-forward ten minutes and the rain is pouring down, and all of us are drenched from head to toe. Despite our discomfort, we manage to plaster smiles on our wet faces and locate a few dry seats in the stadium – just as purple and gold smoke begins to billow from either side of the field and a Led Zeppelin song begins blasting from the speakers. Sparks and fireworks shoot up all around, and the announcer excitedly introduces the famous (or is it infamous?) Vienna Vikings.

Sixty or so gigantic young men run onto the field, chanting and doing their own special dances… clearly they are pumped full of the juices of war and are ready to take on their rivals, the Prague Panthers. The Vikings Cheerleaders bounce joyfully onto the field, followed by a giant purple elephant, the Vikings mascot. (why, no one seems to know…) Soon, men in Vikings t-shirts wander around shouting “Popcorn! Popcorn for sale!” I realized I was in an official American bubble in the 19th District of Vienna, even on a continent so loyal to the real thing, a.k.a. soccer.

American Ambassador William Eacho joins the crowd of fans after a pre-game speech | Photo: David Reali

After a few more minutes of cheering and cheesy 80’s music, the players take formation on the field and the game begins. “93, 78, 42, HIKE!” The first play and about half the players take a tumble, butts and faces landing straight in the mud as the rain has turned the field into a gigantic slip ‘n’ slide. The whistle blows and they line up again. For the first time, I look across the field at the Panther’s seating area and can count the 27 loyal fans, shivering and showering in what seemed like a waterfall.

Within the first five minutes, the Vikings have made their first touchdown and the entire crowd immediately jumps to their feet. An Irish drinking song cames on as the fans began to do a goal-scoring dance, one I observed and learned over teh course of the game, and would do two more times with great enthusiasm.

After each play, the footballers were exchanged for fresh and clean players, and the dirtied and weary lined up to get the mud literally hosed off. Despite the terrible weather conditions, the Vikings were triumphing over the Panthers when halftime came… 14 to zero. Magically, the clouds disappeared and the sun decided to make an appearance – an opportunity to walk around and talk to some of the fans.

A young man from Austria, one of the few not over-dressed in Vikings garb, was talking with a friend. I squeezed myself into their conversation, excited at the chance to talk to American football enthusiasts, and asked if they would be so kind as to explain why they, Europeans, were spending their time viewing an American sport (and some would dare to say, betraying their culture).

an over-the-top fireworks display and announcement of the teams to pump up the crowd | Photo: David Reali

“Well that’s a good question,” they said, laughing and shrugging. They went on to point out that they weren’t big soccer fans, and that football was a game of tactics, something they found quite intriguing. “Plus,” one of them pointed out as he nodded to the dancing girls on the field, “the dance team may not be so good, but the cheerleaders are very entertaining.”

He added a wink for the desired effect. We talked for another ten minutes and I learned that they enjoyed the many breaks football contains, giving them time to drink beer and chat. And one of them made a very interesting observation: “There are so many advertisements and announcements for food!” he said. “Now I understand why Americans are fat!”

From the many players and other Vikings fans that I spoke with, it seems that American football is catching on, at least in this part of Europe. Both Austrian and European leagues exist, and the crowd grows ever greater and enthusiastic as time passes. Four of the players are genuine Americans, aptly named “The Imports.” Josiah Cravalho, is a Hawaiian native in his fourth season with the Vikings. He promotes the game as much as he possibly can, coaching a youth program and teaching American football at local schools in Vienna.  “I do it because I love it,” he said. “And I want to introduce Austrians to the game so they”ll come to love it as well.”

As for the outcome of the game, the Vikings won, scoring 21 points and preventing the Panthers from making a single touchdown. It was a very enjoyable Sunday afternoon, one that instantly transported me back to my high school homecoming days and Superbowl extravaganzas. The only extremely noticeable difference: the referee made his announcements with a distinct Austrian accent, adding that bit of international flair that you wouldn’t ever find in the U.S.

The one thing I still wonder, though… why the giant purple elephant?

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