Ernst Happel: the quiet Austrian who conquered Europe

Ernst Happel: the quiet Austrian who conquered Europe

It’s a spring day in 1962 and an almighty rainfall is pouring down on The Hague. Another 40 years will pass before the third-largest city in the Netherlands will become the headquarters of the International Criminal Court. The Hague, situated less than an hour southwest of the capital Amsterdam, is the home of ADO Den Haag, a side that is frequently pitted against relegation from the Eredivisie.

It is the spring of 1962 and ADO Den Haag have just hired a new manager. Fresh from Vienna, a small, silent Austrian is gazing out across the training ground of his new employer. His players have long since become tired of the rainfall; they want to head indoors. Ernst Happel isn’t having anything of it, but as a newly employed manager at the age of 36, he doesn’t want to end up on wrong terms with his players.

Happel, who at the height of 5ft 10in is almost two feet smaller than a football goal, puts a soda can on top of the crossbar and shoots it down on his first attempt. The challenge from Happel is simple: if any of his players can repeat the trick, they can head indoors.

Needless to say, the session is done when Happel says it’s done. In the pouring rain his players learn that “Alles Door Oefenen” (‘Everything Through Training’) is more than just a part of the name of their club. Over the next 25 years, the small, silent Austrian Ernst Happel would be set to make an everlasting impression on both Dutch and European football.


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Ernst Happel would have been 90 had he lived to see the 29 November 2015. On his birthday, Rapid Vienna faced SCR Altach at the stadium that bears his name. The rain that falls down on those that are slowly making their way into the Ernst-Happel-Stadion is nowhere near as heavy as the rain that poured down on The Hague in the spring of 1962, but it’s accompanied by a howling wind. It makes for a cool evening in Vienna, which has long since entered Christmas mode, glowing with bright lights.

Rapid Vienna actually reside in Hütteldorf, just short of a half hour drive across Vienna, but their home, the Gerhard-Hanappi-Stadion, was torn down in 2014 in order to make room for the new Allianz Stadion. As Die Grün-Weißen await the completion of their new stadium, Rapid play their home matches at Ernst-Happel-Stadion, where Happel is remembered at half time on that cold November evening, with Rapid leading 2-0 at the break.

It was here that Happel began his career as a player, back when the stadium – which was built between 1929 and 1931 – was called the Praterstadion.

Rapid manager Leopold Nitsch brought Happel to Leopoldstadt when Happel was only 13-years-old. With the Second World War raging throughout Europe, Rapid had to make due without several key players. It meant that Happel made his debut in the heart of the Rapid defence just a few months after his 17th birthday. His debut, which ended in a 6-4 loss to then giants FC Vienna, would be one of the few challenging moments Happel would experience in a Rapid shirt.

By the time the central defender and the rest of the Austrian squad left for the World Cup in Switzerland in 1954, Happel had won the Austrian Bundesliga five times and the Austrian Cup once. He had also scored the winning goal in the Zentropa Cup in 1951, the first time the competition that was once known as the Mitropa Cup was played after the end of the war. The trophy remains Rapid’s only international trophy to this date.

In Switzerland, Happel would be tested both on and off the field. Austria beat Scotland and Czechoslovakia to advance to the quarter-finals, where they faced the hosts Switzerland. A thrilling 7-5 win set them up against West Germany.

The Austrians struggled to handle the pressure and were at the wrong end of a 6-1 thumping, but quickly managed to shake off the disappointment. In the third-place playoff they came up against Uruguay and duly dispatched the South Americans to record a memorable finish in the finals. Although the finish was one better than what Austria had achieved in Mexico in 1934 – which remains their best World Cup finish to date – the Austrian press were far from happy.

The loss to West Germany was a tough pill to swallow, and in search of someone to blame, fingers were pointed at Happel and goalkeeper Walter Zeman. The latter had replaced Kurt Schmied, who was hospitalised following the 7-5 win over Switzerland, a game later nicknamed “Hitzeschlacht von Lausanne”, which can be roughly translated to The Heat Battle of Lausanne.

Happel and Zeman were staggeringly accused of match fixing. Happel, understandably, didn’t take the accusations lightly; his relationship with the Austrian press had been dealt a permanent blow and, as a result, Happel left Rapid for Racing Paris after the World Cup.

Happel’s stay in the City of Light was short-lived. His love for Vienna brought him back home just 18 months after he had left for the French capital. Happel, the son of an innkeeper, felt most at home at his beloved Café Ritter. The cafe was one of many Viennese coffee houses that popped up in and around Vienna, and Happel would go there to play cards, discuss football, drink cognac and smoke cigarettes, perhaps his favourite pastime.

Viennese coffee houses have always played an important part shaping local culture. By 1930, the influence of the Viennese coffee houses had reached football. Each club in Vienna had its own cafe where players, supporters, board members and journalists met. The two most popular were Café Partisal and Café Holub, where fans of FK Austria and Rapid Vienna met.

The most influential one, however, was Ring Café at Stubenring 18, now home to the Latin-inspired restaurant Mercado. Both Ring Café and Viennese coffee houses in general were places where, as author David Goldblatt explains in his book The Ball is Round, intellectual and cultural movements met. When they applied their thoughts to football, the discussions took on a whole new dimension. Viennese coffee houses therefore played an important part in shaping Austrian football.

In 1959 Happel finally hung up his boots after 282 professional club appearances and 51 caps for Austria. Along the way, he had won the Bundesliga for a sixth time. Despite his love for everything Viennese, Happel knew that he would have to leave Austria if he were to make a name for himself as a manager – something he had aspired to do since taking his first steps as a player.

His first job took him to The Hague, where he began his managerial career in the pouring rain.


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Happel’s way of earning respect in The Hague in 1962 could fool you into thinking that he was a Sir Alex Ferguson type of manager, that it was either ‘my way or the highway’. He wasn’t. No matter where Happel went, he brought Vienna with him, and especially the Viennese coffee house culture he absorbed whilst playing for Rapid Vienna. Happel was a manager who valued the opinions of his players highly. He wasn’t afraid of asking them for advice, and he did so on several of the most important occasions of his career.

During Hamburg’s pre-match walk before the European Cup final against Juventus at the Olympic Stadium in Athens in 1983, Happel asked his players if they should man mark Michel Platini in order to take the Juventus star out of the game. The Frenchman would end the season having scored 21 goals, but the Hamburg players didn’t think it would be necessary to man mark him to limit his influence on the match. Happel trusted them and he was rewarded with his second European Cup following a 1-0 win via a Felix Magath goal.

Long before he came up against Giovanni Trapattoni in Athens, Happel began making a name for himself in the Netherlands. ADO Den Haag, usually found fighting relegation, rose to the top of the league under the Austrian’s guidance. In 1968, Happel’s ADO Den Haag came up against Ajax in the KNVB Beker. Happel scrapped the popular 4-2-4 formation for a 4-3-3 formation and subsequently beat Rinus Michels’ Ajax. It was the first of two decisive punches Happel would get in on the Ajax legend.

The win over Ajax meant Happel attracted interest from Ajax’s most bitter rivals. The call from De Kuip came as Feyenoord were about to embark on a European adventure in the summer of 1969. Happel built his Feyenoord side around three players: captain Rinus Israël, known as “Iron Rinus”, the great Willem van Hanegem and Coen Moulijn. On the road to San Siro, Feyenoord beat KR Reykjavik, AC Milan, Vorwärts Berlin and Legia Warsaw. In his first European Cup final, Happel came up against Jock Stein’s Celtic.

A few weeks earlier Feyenoord had played against Rinus Michels’ Ajax. Although Feyenoord drew that match after two mistakes from young goalkeeper Eddy Treijtel, their experience from the encounter would prove handy in Milan.

Celtic played a 4-2-4 formation, like Ajax had done in De Klassieker, and like Ajax, the Scottish side struggled to manage Feyenoord’s extra man in midfield. Celtic held on until extra time, when Swedish striker Ove Kindvall finally scored the winner. After the game, Stein admitted that Happel got the better of him: “Celtic has not lost to Feyenoord. I have lost to Happel,” Stein famously said.

Unlike Stein, who had already won the European Cup once before the defeat in Milan, Happel would go on to win the tournament one more time. Before doing so, Happel won the Eredivisie and the Intercontinental Cup, the latter usually contested between the winners of the European Cup and the Copa Libertadores.

After a short spell at Sevilla, Happel took the reigns at Club Brugge. By the time Argentina were set to host the 1978 World Cup, the Austrian had won a total of eight trophies managing in Holland and Belgium.

No wonder, then, that is was the Austrian who was charged with the task of bettering Holland’s run from the 1974 World Cup in West Germany by one. Had it not been for an attempted robbery at the home of Johan Cruyff in Barcelona early in 1978, Happel may well have succeeded in doing so.

The attempted robbery, in which Cruyff, his wife and his children were tied up before Johan managed to wriggle free and the robbers fled, had such an impact on the late Cruyff and his family that he found it impossible to leave them and travel to Argentina. Cruyff, who earned the penalty Johan Neeskens converted in the final against West Germany four years earlier, stayed at home in the summer of 1978. Holland made it to the final in Argentina, but lost 3-1 to the hosts after extra time.


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Bundesliga, European Championship and World Cup winner Günter Netzer once said of Happel: “He never spoke and when he spoke you were not able to understand him.” That didn’t prevent the former Borussia Mönchengladbach star from bringing Happel to Hamburg in 1981. By then, Netzer had become General Manager of Hamburg, and he was facing one of the most important decisions in the club’s history.

Aleksandar Ristić had been acting as caretaker for six months after the sacking of fellow Yugoslav Branko Zebec, who led Hamburg to the Bundesliga title in 1979, when Netzer hired Happel.

Happel had long since made a name for himself in European football, but upon arriving in Hamburg, the Austrian pulled out an old trick from up his sleeve. Franz Beckenbauer managed to do what none of the ADO Den Haag players could do in the spring of 1962, but the trick still worked wonders. Over the next few years, under the strict but trusting and careful rule of Happel, Hamburg would win trophies and set records.

Hamburg won the Bundesliga in both 1981 and ‘82. Between 16 January 1982 and the 29 January 1983, Die Rothosen played 36 Bundesliga games and didn’t lose a single one. It’s a record that still stands.

Better things where still to come for Happel and Hamburg. On 25 May, Happel became the first manager to win the European Cup with two different clubs when Hamburg beat Juventus 1-0 in Athens. During the celebrations Happel, to the surprise of both players and supporters, danced down the touchline in complete contrast to his usually reserved demeanour. Goalkeeper Uli Stein, remembering it years later, said that Happel showing his emotions was as “unusual as seeing the Pope in swim wear”.


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After winning the DFB-Pokal in 1987, Happel came to the conclusion that he had been away from his beloved home country for too long. He returned to Austria to manage FC Swarovski Tirol, with whom he won the Austrian Championship twice, in 1989 and 1990 respectively. He is one of four managers – along with José Mourinho, Giovanni Trapattoni and Tomislav Ivić – to have won the top division in four different European countries.

By 1992, Happel had become manager of the Austrian national team. It was a position he would hold for less than a year. In November that year, 36 years after Happel scored a hat-trick against Real Madrid to force the European Cup holders into a first round playoff, Happel died of lung cancer in Innsbruck at the age of 66.

Four days later, Austria faced Germany in Nuremburg. As the two neighbours with so much common history played out a 0-0 draw, Happel’s cap lay on the Austrian bench. As Michael Hatz scored the winning goal for Rapid Vienna against VfB Mödling, the most successful coach Austria has ever produced was laid to rest at the Hernalser cemetery.

If Happel had known he wouldn’t be able to attend the game against Germany, he would probably have been found sitting in one of his beloved coffee houses in Vienna. Traces of the man who once said “A day without football is a day wasted” can still be found across Europe.

In 1997 a street across from De Kuip was named after Happel, and eight years later, Ernst Jr., the spitting image of his father, unveiled a bust of his father outside Feyenoord’s iconic ground.

However, it’s the Ernst-Happel-Stadion, where Rapid ended up beating Altach 3-1 on the day Happel would have been 90 years-old, that stands as the greatest monument to the Austrian’s success. Renamed after his death, the huge, grey stadium is a fitting homage to the man who once swept across European football, saying just a few telling words in the process.

By Aleksander Losnegård @AleksanderL16

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