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Illustration by Federico Manasse

These days the Austrian national team is more likely to be on the receiving end of a shock result – like the 2-1 loss to Iceland at Euro 2016 – than to be dishing it out. That, however, was not always the case, as their Class of ’78 would testify. Go back even further and Austria was home to one of the best, and most innovative, teams on the planet. The fabled Wunderteam dazzled Europe in the early to mid-1930s, with their style of play, based on fluid passing movements and interchangeability of their players, known as the ‘Danube Whirl’.

Spearheading the team was Austria Vienna’s Matthias Sindelar, a forward of extraordinary artistry, nicknamed De Papierene – The Paper Man – for his slight stature.

After the onset of fascism and war in Europe, Austria would never again have a team as good as the one Hugo Meisl had sculpted. And for four decades, Sindelar’s status as the country’s finest player remained unchallenged. Until, that is, Hans Krankl came along.

From 1970 to 1978, Krankl excelled for Austria Vienna’s city rivals, Rapid, scoring an extraordinary 160 goal in 205 league matches. Even by his standards, 1977/78 was the stuff of legend. In what turned out to be the last season in his first spell at Rapid, Krankl plundered 41 goals, including six hat-tricks, to win the European Golden Boot. His excellence, however, had only been rewarded with a solitary Austrian Cup winners medal in 1976. The relative modesty of the Austrian league meant Krankl, despite his individual exploits, was not considered one of Europe’s elite players. Yet.

Then came the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, and his career would never be the same again. Krankl scored winning goals as Austria overcame Spain 2-1 and Sweden 1-0 in Buenos Aires. Despite losing 1-0 to Brazil, they topped their group to progress to the second round. There, they found themselves in Group of Death to end all others. A rampant Netherlands thrashed Helmut Senekowitsch’s team 5-1 to all but end their hopes of progressing, before a Paolo Rossi goal left Austria pointless after two matches. 

All that was about to fade into insignificance on June 21 as the eliminated Austrians faced a West German team still with hopes of making the final. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge gave West Germany an expected 1-0 lead at half-time, and few expected anything other than a comfortable victory for the reigning champions. Berti Vogts’ own goal on the hour changed the tone of fixture, and six minutes later, Krankl gave Austria the most unexpected of leads with a stunning first-time control and volley. Order seemed to be restored when Bernd Hölzenbein equalised for the Germans on 72 minutes.

Original Series  |  The 50

Krankl, however, had other ideas. With only two minutes left, he slalomed through a bedraggled, retreating German defence and calmly slipped the ball past Sepp Maier with his left foot. The champions were out and Austria had beaten their neighbours for the first time in 47 years.  

What became known as Das Wunder von Córdoba – The Miracle of Cordoba – is immortalised in Austrian football’s most famous piece of commentary: “Goal, goal, goal, goal, goal, goal … I’m going crazy. Krankl has scored, it’s 3-2 for Austria,” Edi Finger screamed, wailing himself into history. 

Krankl’s heroics earned him a big move to Barcelona, where he was expected to make up for the departure of arguably the club’s greatest player, Johan Cruyff. He didn’t disappoint. Somehow he improved his already seemingly unsustainable strike rate, winning the Pichichi award with 29 goals in only 30 La Liga matches, and scored twice in the 4-3 European Cup Winners’ Cup final win over Fortuna Düsseldorf.

Managerial upheaval at Barcelona disrupted his progress and a loan move in his second season meant he ultimately finished with 45 goals in 60 matches when he left in 1981. Hero status among the club’s demanding fans had long been secured.

At 28, he returned to Rapid to score an outstanding 107 goals in 145 league matches over five seasons. His second stay also proved more fruitful medal-wise. There was a hat-trick of Austrian Cup wins, and having never previously won a domestic league title in his career, he righted that wrong in 1982 and 1983. He also scored the consolation goal in the 3-1 loss to Howard Kendall’s superb Everton in the 1985 Cup Winners’ Cup final. 

There is but one stain on a superlative career, though it was a collective rather than a personal one. Having been involved in Austria’s most famous win in 1978, Krankl was part of his country’s most infamous loss four years later at the World Cup in Spain. The Disgrace of Gijon, as West Germany played out a mutually-beneficial 1-0 win over Austria, will forever cast a shadow over both nations’ football heritage.

As Krankl’s career decelerated towards its conclusion at Wiener Sport-Club, Kremser and Austria Salzburg, his strike rate never did. Everywhere he went, goals were guaranteed. The greatest teams inevitably boast great players, like Sindelar. But once in a while, great players like Krankl lift ordinary teams to unexpected greatness 

Writer  |  Ali Khaled  

Editor  |  Matt Gault