For the fourth match of my tour, on the Friday, it is a return to Austria, with a simple but quite lengthy journey from St. Gallen. Paul and Kevin, who had been with me at Gossau made a shorter trip along the same line, while the Wolves fans, Peter and Stan were coming up to meet them with a complex overnight journey from the south of Switzerland. All four had a further overnight to come, to get them into the Czech Republic, whereas I choose my matches to give myself more day time travelling, and the luxury of a bed for the night.
There is another reason why the others shunned my choice of match, despite the fact that the home side are liable to be promoted to the Austrian League next season. This is the opposition, Austria Kärnten Amatuer are the reserve team of a team in the Austrian top division, and some groundhoppers will not watch reserve football under any circumstances. The trouble one finds with reserve football is that a team may suddenly become weaker, (or on occasion stronger) due to the demands of the first team. I certainly accept that reserve teams can be an unbalancing factor on a league, with uneven results if they can field a much stronger squad one week than the next – and I would prefer it if the leagues themselves stopped them from competing, creating separate reserve competitions instead. But once a team is in a league, I will not deny myself a match just because they are the away team. I even allow myself an occasional match where a reserve side is at home, although I have a strict rule that a new ground cannot be ticked for reserve team football, unless it does not share with the first team (or exceptionally, when watching a double header, with the first team game to follow immediately after the reserve match).
Vöcklabruck is a small town between Salzburg and Linz, it is simple enough to get there, as it is on the main line through north Austria, although not all trains stop there. After arriving at the station, I walked into the town, which rather unsurprisingly was reached by crossing a bridge over the river Vöckla! The town is pleasant but small with the central area running between two entrance towers. These would date back to the town being a market centre in the 17th and 18th centuries. Now it is the sort of place where tourists might stop for an hour or two, and so it has plenty of bars and restaurants in the centre. I took the time to eat there after the match.
The football ground is outside the centre and the opposite end of town to the station, but this is not a problem – the distance could comfortably walked in 20 minutes. It is a multi-sports stadium belonging to the municipality. It has a running track, with a pathway all the way around, always raised somewhere above ground level. This is relatively narrow behind the southern goal and on the Eastern side, (where a sports hall would prevent any further development). The northern side has a series of club buildings, with fried sausages, coffee and sandwiches, and course, Beer. The main development is a stand on the West side. While several people watch the game from the areas where the bars are, there is another beer seller in the stand for those who prefer to sit down, and find it too far to walk back. The official crowd figure given for the match is 500 – which fills most of the seats. The club sits proudly at the head of the Regionalliga Mitte table, and has been given the licence required to take its place in the professional ranks next season. A small group of younger fans were creating a little noise and showing their banners. One of which had a stylised footballer made out of a dollar sign, within the traditional road sign, a circle with a single line through it, (international for not allowed, or at least not wanted). I asked them about this, and they explained they were protesting the damage caused by the money coming into football. The example given was Red Bull Salzburg, where the owner of Red Bull – one of Austria’s richest men is putting in far more than the average sponsorship. But so far, this effort has failed to give the team a competitive advantage, with the 2007 title, being the only one in three years of sponsorship so far. Far more worrying is the name changes that can lead to the fan unsure of who to support. It has long been accepted that sponsors names are attached within club names, Vöcklabruck are actually 1 FC RFE Vöcklabruck, but more recently the sponsors have managed to obliterate the town name. At Parndorf, the team from Schwanenstadt was officially known as SCS Bet-at-home.com, The biggest of all these was the small township of Pasching, just outside Linz. In a period of about six years, they went from the fifth level to a place in Europe, but then lost their name and became Superfund FC. When the controversial Jorg Haider, regional president in Kärnten, wanted a top division club to fill the newly rebuilt Wörtherseestadion (Euro 2008 venue), he did not go back to Kärnten FC, who had been pushed out of the stadion while it was being rebuilt, and had been relegated in the meantime. So instead he looked to the top league clubs. After making overtures to the Graz club GAK, (finding the debts there to be too big – the club was wound up and took their reserve team’s place in the regionalliga), he came to agreement with Superfund, and moved the whole club some 200 km south. I imagine this came as some shock to the authorities in Pasching, who spent a lot to build up the stadium, only to find the club back where it started the fifth level (Pasching also repaced theie own reserve side). The new club for Kärnten are now known as Austria Kärnten. Kärnten FC, who had used the Wörthersee stadion before rebuilding remain at the small Fischl stadion and only just escaped a further drop this season.
The visitors at Vöcklabruck for my regionalliga game, Austria Kärnten Amateur, are connected to the top division side. I do not know their provenance before this season, but I can say they put up precious little in resistance to Vöcklbruck’s promotion challenge. Two goals in the first half hour showed the home sides determination to please their own crowd. Kärnten then pressed the self destruct button and managed to collect two red cards before the break. Not surprisingly, it was even more easy going in the second half, with a final score of 6-0.
Arriving in Brno the next day, it is easy to receive a bad first impression of the place. The area around the station is nothing except a series of seedy fast food restaurants, and 24 hour herna bars. (A herna bar is basically a gambling club, which features mainly electronic fruit machines). However, this is just at street level, you just have to raise your head to see that the buildings above them are on a massive scale. Walk away from the station and into the city, and you come across one of the best examples of late Hapsburg era cities anywhere in Europe. I had been to Brno before, but had little time to see the centre and walked straight out to the cold gray concrete Bobu Centrum, where a football stadium exists next to theatre and cinema in a multi-leisure complex, that unfortunately just looks ugly. In the 19th century, when Brno was the fastest expanding city in the region, due to the industrial revolution, it was known as the ‘Czech Manchester’. The Bobu centrum could be called the ‘Czech Arndale’.
At that time, the club was known as Bobu Brno, but having moved on, they have dropped the name and become 1. FC Brno. The new ground (more likely it is an older ground, also used before they went to Bobu), is further away from the centre, and I was pleased to find a bus that could deliver me to the door.
Three sides of the stadium are a typical bowl with some quite steep steps, and concrete, (unusually for older grounds in Eastern Europe), in good condition. Plastic seats cover most of the areas in use by the public, with only those in the away enclosure forced to sit on bare concrete. There are big fences all around in front of the pitch, with the result, that the front five rows of seats are avoided.
The exception is the modern covered west stand, with has only about seven rows of seats, and which is the only covered part of the ground. The front row is at least two metres above pitch level, so viewing is good from all seats, although barriers at the front must mean the back seats are best.
Brno need points from the game in their bid to make it to the UEFA Cup. Their bid was boosted by a win at leaders Sparta Prague a week earlier. The team Brno need to overhaul to reach Europe, Banik Ostrava, were co-incidentally away to Sparta at the same time as our game. The away side, Slovan Liberec do not need the points – they have already made it to European competition, regardless of the result of the following week’s Czech cup final, as their opponents, (yes, Sparta again) are certainly in the Champions League, whether they finish the season as champions or runners-up. The home fans had a nice take on this, unveiling a poster to say it was the league, not the cup that mattered – but I wondered if this was just poor sportsmanship, as Brno had fallen in the semi-finals – to Liberec.
Anyway, despite the need to win the game, Brno struggled in the first half to create any clear cut chances, except for one header which went just wide. Liberec certainly did not seem to be distracted by the coming cup final, with more chances coming their way at the end of the first half, and in the early second half, and Filip Dort lobbed the ball onto the cross bar on 53 minutes. With the news at half time being that Ostrava were winning in Prague, Brno needed something to keep their hopes alive, and it came in the form of a rash challenge by Jiri Bilek. I did not get a clear view of the alleged foul, but there was little complaint from the away fans, and Petr Pavlik stepped up to score the penalty. Being ahead seemed to galvanise the home team, and they took control, although their finishing was woeful. They came close again when Tomas Dosek hit the cross bar in the 78th minute. This was Dosek’s last significant action, as he was replaced by Libor Balaz, who himself had time to claim two clear chances. The first, from the right side was blasted over, but as the 90th minute was reached, and from the left side, he found the target to give Brno a 2-0 win. Unfortunately, Ostrava repeated Brno’s achievement and won at Sparta, so Brno enter the last day of the season with goal difference between them and Europe, and Sparta have been overhauled by city rivals Slavia