The European Tournament has come and gone, giving a fleeting glimpse of full stadia to Austria, but all too soon, the domestic season restarts, and the confused world of Austrian football is there for all to see except of course not many people are looking.
The Austrian Bundesliga has two divisions, of ten and twelve teams. There is only one promotion and relegation place. However, the lower division (which of course, in common with so many is the Erste Liga First League) relegates three teams each season allowing the champions of each of the three regional leagues to gain promotion. This has only been the case for four seasons; prior to which a play-off system meant either one or two new teams would appear each season. The lower division used to have only ten teams, the same as the top league, but it was extended to 12 in 2006.
There is now a move to try to change the system again, and place a restriction on the number of sides promoted from the Regional leagues. Statistically, there must be a case. Nine teams have been promoted 2005-7, while only 5 have been relegated in 2006-8, (thanks to an increase in the numbers in 2006, and two clubs losing their license to bankruptcy in 2007). Of the nine promoted clubs, three were relegated in one season, while one lasted two years (they would have been relegated first time out, but were reprieved by the clubs losing licences). In other words, only one club with a history of more than two seasons in the league have been relegated in the last three years. Co-incidentally, no club has risen to, and then dropped out of the top division in that time.
To confuse matters further, two of the nine clubs have sold their license this summer, so only three of my nine promoted clubs are still running in their original form in the Erste Liga, (and two of those are reserve teams!). Naturally the Regional leagues do not want a further change, and wish to keep their direct promotions, but in order to make a good argument, they need the promoted clubs to start looking like they deserve their promotion, and can keep both their status and identity. The trio for 2008 look like as good a bet as any. St. Pölten won the Eastern Regional league. This is a team with plenty of history who competed in the top division in the 1980s and early 90s. Vöcklabruck, which was part of my European tour in May, won the Central Regional League. Their facilities are more than adequate, and were frequently getting good crowds at the end of last season.
So than leaves SV Grödig, champions of the Western Regional League. Grödig is just a few km outside Salzburg, and looks the part an attractive but generally quiet place to live, with the city not far distant. The football club is on the edge of the town, and until last season had few facilities at all. During the summer a new stand has suddenly been raised, giving the club 252 seats but the rest of the surrounds is merely flat standing. The stand faces south, which is unusual and with matches in this division generally taking place on Friday evening, the sun will glare into the faces of the spectators at the start and end of season. This is compensated for by the mountain views, which makes the whole place a delight.
The visitors for the second home game of the season have styled themselves as FC Trenkwalder Admira. They are the embodiment of a lot of outsiders complaints about football in Austria. They appear to be the plaything of businessman Richard Trenkwalder, whose main business in a personal and recruitment agency. A year ago, SC Schwadorf, from a small club 25km south of Vienna won the East Regional League and a place in the Erste Liga. In Austria, where football is completely dependent on sponsorship money, he who pays the piper gets to call all the tunes, so once in the league, the club name became SKS Trenkwalder, letting the country know whose money was holding the club in place.
Meanwhile, in the regional league, sat the complicated name of FC Admira/Wacker Mödling. Admira, with 8 titles are the fourth most successful club in Austria after the two big Vienna clubs (Austria and Rapid), and Wacker Tirol Innsbruck (under several variations of the names). They merge in the early 70s with Wacker, another Viennese club and champions of 1947. Playing at the Sudstadt stadion, in the southern suburbs of Vienna, they also absorbed second division Mödling in 1997. They were relegated to the Erste Liga in 2006, and were refused a license at the end of 2007, (when with 33 points, they might have just escaped relegated thanks to GAK of Graz also being refused a license). That of course meant that Schwadorf had replaced them in the league.
In the first half of last season, it became apparent that while Trenkwalder may have raised a team into the professional league, it did not come with instant support, and so during the winter break, he arranged a swop. For the second half of the season, SKS Trenkwalder played at Sudstadt, while Admira/Wacker Mödling switched to play in Schwadorf. SKS avoided relegation by one point, while Admira were a mid-table team. This season, he takes it one step further, and has basically merged the clubs with the Erste Liga team now known as FC Trenkwalder Admira, and the regional league team, FC Trenkwalder Admira Amateur (Amateur being the tradition way of ending the name of a second or reserve team in Austria or Germany, assuming the first team is professional). There is no mention of Schwadorf at all, and anyone watching football there this season will see only real amateur football some three divisions lower down the pyramid.
Getting back to Grödig, some 700 people and I saw an entertaining game. The home side played with a 4-4-2 formation, although on midfielder held back to shield the defence. The visitors were in 5-4-1, which looks defensive, but does allow the wingers to roam with no defensive duty, and did threaten the home defence on many occasions. Grödig won 2-1, both goals coming from penalties and scored by their Brazilian striker Diego Viana, (who led the regional league charts with 33 last season). Viana has scored four of Grödigs five goals in the opening games this season. The home defence looked uncertain on many occasions, and Admira had hit the post, and sent a few shots wide before Christoph Mattes levelled the first penalty a little before half time. Grödig just about deserved the win they have now won both home games, but lost their only away one this season. However, it is too early to say that their entry into the league will be a success.