Hidden pitch conceals 120 years of football history

First international took place in Vienna park

Europe’s first football international took place between Austria and Hungary back in 1902

On the eve of Euros in June 2016, a joke was doing the rounds in Budapest. Two fans were talking. “Hey, it’s Austria-Hungary tomorrow,” says one. “Really?” says the other. “Who are we playing?”

The game would prove to be a transformative one for Hungarian football. It wasn’t just the 2-0 win but the first goal, from previously unpopular Ádám Szalai, saw him launch himself straight into the sea of black T-shirted Hungarian fans in the crowd. From that moment on, the national side was reborn.

Lost in the moment was the fact that it was also a derby. In fact, no two European teams have played each other more times. It was exactly 120 years ago today, October 12, that the Austrian team welcomed their Hungarian counterparts, both representing the same dual monarchy, to the WAC-Platz pitch in the Prater Park, Vienna.

WAC Prater/Peterjon Cresswell

You can still see it today, if you look hard enough. 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 seems to be comprised of orange-gravelled tennis courts.

But sidle past the ageing Viennese gently knocking out a set or two, down a half-hidden path and through a thicket of trees, you come across a section of terracing currently carpeted with autumn leaves. It overlooks a flat, manicured expanse of grass begging to be broached by two football teams if only a pitch were marked out.

It was here that the first football international took place on continental Europe: Austria v Hungary. 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 milieu 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, representing the Hungarian capital.

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.

Champs Sports Bar/Peterjon Cresswell

For the 1902 match, later declared an international, WAC’s own Josef Taurer scored after five minutes. Within ten minutes, Jan Studnicka had doubled Austria’s lead, the first of three 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 shaped the way Cricketer, later Austria Wien, and MTK Budapest played.

WAC-Platz/Peterjon Cresswell

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 before Euro 2016 a qualifier for the 1986 World Cup. Lajos Détári led a dominant Hungary to a crushing 3-0 win at the Praterstadion – before a crushing 6-0 defeat to the USSR in the Magyars’ opening game in the Mexico finals.

Euro 2016, of course, was a different story altogether.