‘It’s Austria-Hungary tomorrow,’ says one old supporter to another. ‘Really?’ replies his mate. ‘Who are they playing?’ The joke is as old as the rivalry itself, which dates back to 1902. On the eve of the Habsburg dust-up at Euro 2016, Peterjon Cresswell visits the pitch where the inaugural match took place, the first international in continental Europe.
Vienna’s Prater Park. Noble land since 1162, recreational grounds since 1766, site of the giant wheel of ‘Third Man’ film fame, home to the Ernst-Happel-Stadion where Spain began their dominance of world football at Euro 2008.
Away from the world-famous funfair where Austria fans do their pre-match drinking, away from the chestnut-lined avenues and the Lilliputian train, in a far corner near the Danube Canal in an area of the park known as Jesuitenweise, the modest WAC sports club is apparently comprised of orange-gravelled tennis courts.
Past ageing Viennese gently knocking out a set or two, down a half-hidden path, and through a thicket of trees, if you know how to find it, you come across a section of terracing currently carpeted with spring blossom. It overlooks a flat, manicured expanse of grass begging to be broached by two football teams if only a pitch were to be marked out.
It was here, in 1902, that the first football international took place in continental Europe: Austria v Hungary.
Fast forward nearly 114 years and the old foes meet again in Bordeaux for their opening match at Euro 2016. No two European teams have played each other more times.
For Hungary, this is will be their first major finals for three decades. Those 30 years of hurt have featured some pretty devastating reverses for a country whose national team has appeared in more World Cup finals than England’s.
Austria have hardly set the world alight since each of the former joint Habsburg powers finished in the final four at the 1954 World Cup.
While that was the major crown that Hungary should have won, Austria can look back on 1934 as the great missed opportunity. On both occasions, the swift passing game, the so-called Danubian style, practised by both teams, was cancelled out by mud and endeavour. Austria were outmuscled by Italy on a quagmire in Milan, Hungary by West Germany in rainy Berne 20 years later.
Each of these near world-beaters first entered the global football stage on this patch of grass hidden from sight in a forgotten corner of Vienna’s Prater Park.
On that day, October 12 1902, at 3pm, some 500 gathered at the WAC-Platz to witness the first clash of the Habsburg giants. The referee was a certain Roland Shires, a pioneer in the fin-de-siècle football scene of Central Europe. A player for Vienna Cricket and Football-Club, Shires also officiated at a fixture four years earlier at the WAC-Platz, between his team and Budapesti TC. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for a player of one club to do this – honesty and impartiality were a given. Shires later played for MTK Budapest after his firm sent him to Hungary as branch manager.
For the 1902 match, later declared an international, WAC’s own Josef Taurer scored after five minutes. Within ten, Jan Studicka had doubled Austria’s lead, the first of three goals he would notch that day. On the Magyar side was Alfréd Hajós, a remarkable sportsman who won Hungary’s first gold medal at the inaugural modern Olympics of 1896, swimming in a freezing Aegean.
Another footballer-cum-referee, Hajós was also a famous architect, who designed sports stadiums such as the swimming arena on Budapest’s Margaret Island and the city’s Millénaris Sportpálya, where Hungary and Austria met several times before World War I.
By then, Nelson-born coach Jimmy Hogan had arrived to shape the way Cricketer (aka Austria Vienna), and then MTK Budapest played. Establishing a passing game in both capitals, Hogan would return to both clubs between the wars. Under his influence, football in Austria and Hungary developed rapidly. When Hungary famously beat England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, it was Hogan the Hungarians made a point of thanking at the press conference.
Set either side of the Iron Curtain after 1945, Hungary and Austria still played each other most years, the last competitive international a qualifier for the 1986 World Cup. Lajos Détári led a dominant Hungary to a crushing 3-0 win at the Praterstadion – then to a crushing 6-0 defeat to the USSR in the Magyars’ opening game in the Mexico finals.
Hungary have waited 30 years to wipe the slate clean. The fact that their first opponents at Euro 2016 are their oldest rivals Austria makes the occasion just that little bit sweeter.
Austria-Hungary, Bordeaux, Tuesday June 14, 6pm CET.