Euro Blog 4. Midweek Mediocracy

After leaving Zagreb, my midweek selection of matches did not do so well in terms of football quality. Possibly it is because I was looking more at relegation issues than promotion. My first stop was Austria’s second city, Graz. Graz is a very pleasant city, and in the warmth of spring sunshine, I had a good afternoon wandering around and then sitting outside a restaurant for a meal and some beer. However, I allowed myself to be fooled by the heat, and not to think that weather can change. Quickly. I travelled out to Gratkorn, a ten minute ride on the local train. The station serves two villages, Gratkorn and Gratwein, separated by a river – and I had a half hour walk to the stadium. It is not really a present place, with a large chemical concern filling most of the land mass of the place. The football ground is the main road, next door to said chemical works. Although there was a little uncovered spectator accommodation on the far side, the main facility is a modern stand that runs about two thirds of the length of one side. The lowest level of seats is raised will above pitch level, so views are good. The stand can probably hold about twice the 650 attendance for my game. As seems to be common in this region, there is a wide pathway at the top, with food and drink distribution points, and plenty of room to stand around. The admission price for a second division Austrian game was 10 Euro, while the programme was free.

When I arrived, it was still warm, and they were still watering the artificial pitch. I don’t know much about artificial pitches but judging on the evidence of Salzburg on Saturday and the Gratkorn, they need lots of water. And then the heavens opened, and in this part of the world, the heavens really do open. Clearly there was no need to keep the pitch watering system on, while the view to the mountains was lost in the dark, except the occasional flash of lightning and crash of thunder. The storm started around 30 minutes before kick off, and lasted well into the first half, by which time pools of water had begun to form on the playing surface. Few referees in England would have carried on, but while Austrian footballers fall to the ground at the touch of a feather, they appear to have no fear of drowning, and I was the only one worried that the match might not be completed.

Gratkorn are in their second season in the Austrian second division, and look as if they will be safe for another season. The visitors, Grödig, a small village just outside Salzburg, were promoted last year and are now third from bottom – a relegation position but with a chance of escaping before the game started. For a team in this sort of position, one might expect some sort of effort to win against one of the teams that could be drawn into the relegation zone. Not Grödig – they had shown optimism, combined with ability and a bit of luck when I saw them at the start of the season. Then they played two up front, and beat Admira, who look like finishing second in the table. Now with eight of the eleven starters still in place, they lacked in adventure and ability, played only one forward, even after going a goal down. It was only poor finishing, (and frequently, a failure to attempt a pass) that stopped Gratkorn by winning more than a single goal, scored from the penalty spot just before half time. Both the current bottom two in the league have been told that there is no point in escaping relegation as strict licensing regulations in Austria, (mainly financial , the majority of the Football League’s 72 clubs would fail), means they are to be relegated anyway . Grödig’s hopes of staying up seem to depend on being more financially stable than club’s bidding for promotion, and nothing to do with actual football. For the record, the rain eased off in the second half, and appeared to be almost stopped at the end of the game – but this was just to fool me. By the time I arrived at the station I was a sodden mess, soaked to the skin.

For Wednesday, my destination was Ptuj in Slovenia. It was chosen not because of the importance of the match, but the relative ease in getting in and out of the town. As it was, I probably still could have done better, as staying in Maribor was an option. Ptuj is a very pretty town, built above the river Drava, with a pleasant old centre, and a castle on the hill. It is the sort of place where tourists travelling by road should stop, enjoy the views, take a view photos, (maybe visit the castle) and have a coffee at one of the many cafes dotted around. Or perhaps an ice-cream, I do not recall any town having such a high proportion of ice-cafes, per head of population. Arriving by train is less pleasant. You exit a near deserted railway station without a map and without a signpost even to point to the centre. There is a bus station across the road which is a little better – still no map, but at least someone is there to direct you into town. It is only a short walk, and it does not take long to get to the tourist office (pick up a map) and your hotel. The hotel has an ice-cafe out front but no restaurant, as you discover later when looking for something to eat. And that is the point of Ptuj – it has been designed to be visited, with plenty of ways to while away the afternoon, but it has a limited number of over-priced hotels, and even less over-priced restaurants.

The football ground is at the bottom of the hill, just across the railway line from the town – it is easy to walk to, and if I had not elected to stay, I could easily been at the station within 15 minutes of the game’s end. The Slovenian League has ten team in its top division, with each team playing the others four times, a total of 36 games. The bottom side is relegated, with the next in a play off. The daily sports paper conveniently gives league tables for each quarter. At the three-quarters mark, Ptuj were rock bottom – six points behind Primorje (the visitors of the day). They had picked up only one point in the nine matches of the third quarter. The last quarter was a different matter – Ptuj had suddenly made a clean sweep and one seven in a row! The match I was watching was therefore a chance for the home side to make certain of their place in the top flight, and all but condemn Promorje to the drop. This was enough to attract 1200 into the stadium (either called Mestni (=town) or Drava (after the local river) stadion). This is a good crowd in Slovenia. When I went to Gorica a few years back, and they needed to win to claim the title, less than 1000 watched. The stadium is two sided, with a covered stand on one side, and banks of yellow plastic seats opposite. Most of the crowd were in the covered seats. No programmes issued, but no problem in picking up a copy of the team sheet. The game was a disappointment, especially for the home fans, as the only goal was scored just before half time by the visitors’ Mirko Zaja. It is a result that gives them some hope of survival, and clearly threatens to derail Ptuj’s recovery.

For the third of the series of mid-week games it was Thursday in Klagenfurt. I do not know much about Klagenfurt, and I did not spend much time there. I can say, that on a bank holiday Thursday, there is not a lot happening. My arrival was delayed by the efficiency of Austrian railways. I had checked my train with a travel office, and been told that despite engineering works, I would make a connection. I asked again as we transferred from train to bus – no problem, I am told. Still, at the next station, I find not only have I missed my fast train (getting to Klagenfurt two hours before kick off), but also the slow one (this was four minutes after the fast train, and on the departure board when we arrived at the station, but left before it was possible to get to it. With half an hour before the next slow train, I tried to make a complaint. The Austrian railway officials were having none of it. There is another train within 30 minutes. Why should they care. Anyway, you are not allowed to make a complaint. As I wander away, I am stopped by an elderly lady who had overheard the conversation. Actually, its all a lie,she says. You can complain to Austrian railways, but they don’t like you to know. She gave me a card with the contact details! I am surprised the British railway companies have not cottoned on to this idea – reduce the number of complaints by refusing to tell people how to complain. Anyway I arrive in Klagenfurt less than an hour before kick off, and this is not even a town where everything is centralised. I need one bus to the centre, another to the stadium.

The stadium name,like so many these days is open to interpretation. I know many people, especially among those ground hoppers who went to the old stadium and will no go again, (same site) as the Worthersee stadion. During the European championships, it may well have been referred as the Klagenfurt EM-Stadion, the club has now branded I as the Hypo-Group Arena (that’s one that just trips off the ground), but I noticed that on internal signage, and also outside the offices, it has also become Sportpark Klagenfurt. Inside, it looks vaguely familiar. It is a two tier stadium, the lower tied being of concrete construction, while the upper section, which appears to have been built as an independent, unconnected unit, is all steel. The upper tier does not continue on the west side of the stadium, where VIP facilities are built up, accessed from the lower section. It is clearly a near direct copy of the stadium in Salzburg. There are three major differences though – the pitch is at the same level as the land outside, while Salzburg’s pitch is lower. Klagenfurt is still grass, and the roof rises gently towards the middle of the East side, allowing more seats above the half way line. From the outside, the roofing, which curves down to form a cladding for the upper tier is very different to that of Salzburg. At Salzburg, the roof is level and almost disconnected from the stands below.

While the stadium was built for the European championships, a slightly surprising choice considering that the larger city of Graz already had a near new stadium of its own, (which was known as the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadion until the city fathers argued with their former favourite son, now governor of California over the use of the death penalty in the American state); the football club itself was a political statement to fill the stadium. Before re-building, the Wortherseestadion was home to FC Kärnten – a club that has been struggling for some time both on and off the field. The old club were moved (supposedly temporarily) while the rebuilding work took place. They never returned, and at the end of last season, they were relegated out of the second division into the amateur regional leagues. Of course, you can not just magic up a top division team out of nowhere, not even in Austria. The solution was found over 200 km away in the small suburb of Pasching. The football club there had risen from true amateurism at the fifth level of the Austrian pyramid, to actually playing in Europe. This was achieved mainly thanks to the financial contribution from an investment company – and the club had become FC Superfund. Still it cannot be a surprise to find out the club was unsustainable in this form, except by continuing funding from above – and so they moved, lock, stock and league position to Klagenfurt. For the fans of Pasching, their reserves became the new first team, and they were back in the amateur levels. I doubt if many new fans stayed. Under the title, Austria Kärnten survive in the top flight, although they are short of looking like European candidates. The victims in this game of musical football grounds are the tax payers in Pasching, as they have paid for a stadium to be built up for what is once again a local amateur club.

Admission cost between 12 and 24 Euro, the upper tier was not used, the match programme was an unusual affair, unfolding from a small size into a single large sheet. A standard A4 sheet of paper would have been achieved by unfolding 3 ‘pages’, but the programme actually had 5. The game was not memorable, and in a week between seeing it, and writing notes, I have indeed forgotten most of it. It did however have a twist at the end. SV Ried were behind at half time, and deservedly levelled the scores with 15 minutes to go. Then in injury time, they took advantage of a brief hesitation by the home defence and squeezed in a winner. The result keeps Ried’s slight chances of European football open – Sturm Graz will go to Ried on the final day, needing to avoid a three goal defeat to qualify

Post-report note – on the final day of the season, Ried did indeed score three goals to beat Sturm Graz, but as this was a comeback in the last 20 minutes from 2-0 down, it was not enough to give Ried a European place. On the same day, the Champion, Salzburg, were humbled by a 4-1 hone defeat to Altach, already relegated in last place.

Post-report note 2 – On 8th June, a tribunal gave a licence to Regionalliga West leaders Dornbirn. Dornbirn needs a point from their last game to ensure the title, which will lead to Grödig being relegated.