This feature is part of A Tale of One City
You could easily be tricked into thinking Vienna is a peaceful, passive city; a breezy cultural beacon of Eastern Europe. Indeed, it’s superb and is a resplendent location for romantic getaways, city breaks and an essential stop on any inter-railing route. The city’s Wienerwald is a famed cyclist haven, while the Donau and Lobau to the east provide the perfect opportunities for swimming and other leisurely activities.
The locals are a largely sophisticated bunch; sipping espressos and admiring their city’s mountainous splendour. Strolling through the atmospheric cobblestone streets, delighting at the leafy boulevards or aweing at the grand Hofburg Palace, you feel at ease in this cultural mecca.
Step inside the stadiums of Rapid and Austria Vienna during the Wiener Derby, however, and you are faced with an entirely different side of Vienna.
Football is perhaps not as instantly recognisable with Austria as it is with its neighbour, Germany, but the country still houses a footballing rivalry of fanatical passion, a century-old tussle that provides the most compelling narrative in the history of Austrian football: SK Rapid Wien and FK Austria Wien. With 310 meetings, only the Old Firm in Glasgow can boast more games in its history – but that takes nothing away from the historic hatred between Austria’s two most successful footballing institutions.
No article about the Vienna derby would be complete without a telling of its history and the past is a place of heroes, villains, pain, passion, horror and ecstasy in the rivalry between two clubs, whose disdain for each other has remained constant during two World Wars, a Nazi invasion and the rise of other powerful forces in Austrian club football such as Red Bull Salzburg, who in recent years has dominated the Bundesliga. Rule as they may, Salzburg will never play in a domestic fixture as big as the Wiener Derby.
Between them, Rapid and Austria share 54 league championships and their history echoes the glory days of Austrian football, most notably the Wunderteam of the 1930s. Hugo Meisl, the mastermind behind the glorious Wunderteam, stands at the centre of Vienna’s illustrious footballing history. A Jewish bank clerk born in the Bohemia region in the Czech Republic, Meisl fell in love with football after watching it blossom to become a national treasure in Britain and dedicated his career to the development of the game in Austria. Meisl eventually became general secretary of the Austrian Football Association and developed an idea for a club football competition hosting teams from different countries in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was called the Mitropa Cup.
This competition was first played in 1927, during an inter-war period when the rivalry between the two Viennese rivals was starting to develop. Rapid were undoubtedly the superior side, winning each of the first dozen encounters from the derby’s inception in 1911 – including a remarkable 9-0 annihilation of their neighbours in July 1916.
Austria Wien did not play in the eight-team Mitropa showcase initially as the Austrian representation was completed, alongside Rapid, first by SK Admira Vien and then by First Vienna FC. With Austria Vienna not competing in the Mitropa’s stages of infancy, they were forced to watch on as their counterparts became a feared and potent force in continental football. Rapid were runners-up in 1927 and 1928 but were crowned champions in 1930, ushering in a golden age for Austrian football in the process.
The Mitropa Cup flourished in its early years and coincided with the rise of Austria’s greatest ever national side: the Wunderteam. The Wunderteam was the name given to the Austrian national team that swept all before them from 1931, managing an unbeaten stretch that lasted 19 internationals and included an 11-goal hammering of Germany over two ties. They were a revered and feared global force that swept all before them, apart from a 4-3 defeat to England at Stamford Bridge in December 1932 which, to this day, is considered a fortunate victory for the English.
The Viennese derby gave rise to some of the Wunderteam’s stars, including Josef Smistik and Walter Nausch. But one man towers above all else in the history of Austria’s greatest footballers: Matthias Sindelar. An awkward character with a slight build, Sindelar was a true footballing magician.
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Read | The extraordinary life and death of Matthias Sindelar
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Nicknamed Der Papierene or ‘The Paper Man’, Sindelar was Austria’s Pelé. A talismanic centre-forward of Das Wunderteam, Sindelar’s ingenuity was symbolic of Austrian football’s rude health in the 1930s. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, there were only 14,000 registered footballers in Austria; by 1921, there were 37,000, the majority of which were in Vienna.
Crowds at matches were increasing exponentially and the bolstered support for the game of football gave birth to a vibrant footballing culture known as the ‘coffeehouse culture’. This bohemian type of footballing community was characterised by a coffeehouse by the name of Ring House which, according to a piece in Welt am Montag, became “a kind of revolutionary parliament of the friends and fanatics of football.” Sindelar, the masterful attacker with a prodigious appetite for goals, stood at the epicentre of this burgeoning culture as Vienna flourished as a footballing city in the 1930s.
Sindelar had a style which was poetically conveyed by Alfred Polgar, who famously said he played football “like a grandmaster plays chess”. “In a way he had brains in his legs,” Polgar wrote, “and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running. Sindelar’s shot hit the back of the net like the perfect punch-line, the ending that made it possible to understand and appreciate the perfect composition of the story, the crowning of which it represented.”
There is no footage available of Sindelar’s excellent ability but the written descriptions and eulogies that have survived are too consistent to deny. He is the enduring icon of that wonderful national side, who somehow fell to Italy in the 1934 World Cup semi-final (with a team comprised mainly of Rapid and Austria players), but he was also a superstar of the city’s derby. In the inter-war period, Sindelar’s Austria clashed with the formidable Rapid. The national treasure status of Sindelar catapulted the Wiener derby to the forefront of the Austrian club game and it has stayed there ever since.
However, Sindelar was sadly not present to witness his legacy. His life was tragically, and mysteriously, cut short at just the age of 35. Sindelar’s staunch opposition to Nazism was well documented and came to form an integral part in the latter stages of his life. As Nazism came to spread through Europe in the 1930s, Hitler and the Nazis inevitably took an interest in football and believed they could integrate it into their mass propaganda machine, all geared towards projecting an image of collective athleticism and national spirit. Following the Anschluss in March 1938, one of the first actions of the National Socialist government in Austria was to disband the country’s professional football association.
The Wiener Derby, das Wunderteam and the previously nascent footballing culture in Vienna lay in ruins, destroyed by the suffocating powers of Nazism. Austria became Ostmark, a province of the Reich. While many acquiesced to the takeover, Sindelar stood firm in defiance of Nazism. He refused to play for the Ostmark and when Austria played their last game against Germany, Sindelar scored and celebrated in front of a directors’ box packed with high-ranking Nazis.
Ten months later, he was found dead under suspicious circumstances in his apartment. The official reason for death was given as carbon monoxide poisoning but there were more than a few eyebrows raised by the timing and nature of his passing.
Symbolic of Austrian football as a whole, Sindelar’s death marked a downturn in club football in the country. The Mitropa Cup was cancelled during wartime and never fully regained its lustre despite returning later under a new name. The Wiener derby, however, lived on far beyond the end of the war, emerging undeterred despite bearing the ravages of a war-torn country.
Ernst Ocwirk propelled Austria Vienna to more titles and prestige in the post-war world and is warmly regarded as one of the last great attacking centre-halves. Ocwirk spent eleven years at his beloved SK, leading them to five Bundesliga titles in the process as they became the dominant force in Austrian football at the expense of their city rivals. With the Österreichischer, Ocwirk stood alongside the great Gerhard Hanappi, but on the club scene, they were bitter enemies. As leaders of the rival clubs, Ocwirk and Hanappi spearheaded another fine period in the Wiener derby history when Austrian football was dictated by the hegemony in the capital, with Rapid and SK ruling the league between 1950-63.
The legends of this derby provide the compelling backbone narrative, but the fans remain a constant force in the rivalry. Austrian football may not be the force it was in the build-up to the Second World War, but the Wiener derby has maintained its allure and prestige amongst the world of footballing rivalries. As with so many derbies, fans seek to politicise their hatred for one another. There are always classes, and there is always a class divide.
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Football straddles the great divide in major cities all around the world, bringing together under one roof – metaphorically speaking – the two polar opposites of the community. Vienna is no different. In Rapid Vienna, there is a club proud of its proletarian roots. The working class vanguard of Rapid was epitomised by Josef Uridil, their legendary centre-forward whose robust style of play was celebrated as exemplifying the proletarian roots of the club.
Naturally, on the opposite of the divide is Austria Vienna, seen as the middle-class institution, is more closely associated with the coffeehouse intelligentsia. Rapid are owned by the supporters and are fiercely proud of their more humble disposition; Austria were, up until recently, owned by millionaire Frank Stronach. It has become known as the “Clash of the Classes”. The clubs are two contradictory forces battling for supremacy of Vienna.
Austria are proud of what has been labelled a more technical brand of football whilst Rapid revel in a more robust, fighting spirit personified by the great Uridil. For Austria Vienna fans, it is important to not only win but to do so beautifully. They are the more demanding sections of the Viennese footballing congregation. It is a clash of philosophies, a clash of styles and a clash of ideologies. The Viennese derby has all the perfect ingredients of a great city derby.
In the wider frame of Austrian football, their duopoly has been undeniably shattered by the rise of Red Bull Salzburg but their rivalry remains the most hotly anticipated date in the Austrian football calendar, and for good reason. The scene of a Wiener derby is a sight to behold, with the stadiums awash with colour and regularly set against the ear-splittingly cacophonous backdrop of a pyrotechnic extravaganza. It would be safe to assume that, after a century, the derby may have lost its edge or passion but, in fact, the opposite is true.
In recent times, the Wiener derby has become more volatile, dangerous and intense. It houses a riotous atmosphere that sometimes spills out onto the pitch. In 2011, with Rapid in the throes of depression on the pitch after going down 2-0 at home to their rivals, their fans decided enough was enough and stormed the pitch, showing the frightening, rebellious streak of the Rapid fan base.
To Rapid fans, the performance from their team was unacceptable and some 200 took it upon themselves to forcibly put a halt to proceedings before they really got embarrassing. Attempting to unnerve and intimidate, some pulled their hoodies and t-shirts up over their faces to look like masked revolutionaries, creating a combat zone of a football pitch and dramatically darkening what should have been another showcase for Austrian football’s most famous rivalry. After storming the pitch, the police gathered and eventually repelled the insurgents with a barricade of armour.
Rapid fans were fuelled, in part, by incidents from derbies past, particularly an episode featuring Austria keeper Joey Didulica, when he came rampaging out of his box to clear a long ball, jumped and flung his knee into the face of Axel Lawarée from Rapid, who suffered a broken nose, broken cheekbone and was ruled out for nearly a year such was the severity of his injuries. Didulica was duly dismissed but the Rapid fans wanted blood. There were even unconfirmed rumours that rogue sections of the Rapid fans showed up at the goalkeeper’s apartment. Whether that is true or not, Didulica certainly lit the tinderbox and ignited the hatred between the quarrelling sets of fans.
In the most recent past, Rapid have been unquestionably the superior side, putting together a remarkable run of ten games unbeaten, which ended in October 2014 when Austria clinched a last-gasp victory, prompting pandemonium from their fans.
While both clubs have put up little resistance in the face of Red Bull Salzburg’s prominence, the derby remains the critical fixture, the perennial endgame and fans still toil at the unthinkable prospect of losing. It is a rivalry that has lasted through wars and has endured during the ebbs and flows of Austrian football, but it is also a match which has seen some of Europe’s greatest players and has a narrative as compelling and fascinating as many.
In Vienna, football is dominated by the Wiener derby; but will Austria ever return to the forefront of the global game like the mighty Wunderteam? This game means everything to the fans. When the Austrian FA imposed a ban on ultras, the Rapid fans marched outside the stadium and attended a training session in their thousands, cheering on the players as they went through routine drills with all the usual flags, flares and frenzy. That’s how fanatical the support can get. That’s how powerful the Viennese derby is.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11