Ernst Happel Stadium
Name: Ernst Happel Stadium
Address: Meiereistrasse 7, 1020 Vienna
Opened: 11 July 1931
Last renovation: 2007
No, of seats: 50865 (53008 for EURO 2008)
% of stadium covered: 100%
Home team: Austria, Viennese clubs (for European matches)
Ernst Happel Stadium: stage of the stars
There are some songs which, when aired at the Prater Stadium, bring everyone to their feet — even the calmest and most placid of Austrian football fans. For whenever “Austria forever,” the unofficial anthem of the Austrian football team, booms around this arena, the stadium turns into a deafening mass of voices and the atmosphere is quite something to behold. “Austria forever” is the traditional call-to-arms of the Austrian national team and nowhere does this most Austrian of songs sound as loud, as impressive and as atmospheric as at Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium, Austria’s home stadium and the setting for the EURO 2008 final on 29 June 2008.
The stadium is a wonderful venue for football matches and the perfect stage for stars, even though the opening match 77 years ago was unquestionably rather less glamorous than the hundreds that followed. On 11 July 1931, Vienna’s Workers’ XI defeated a Lower Austria representative team 3-2 at the second Workers’ Olympiad but the action on the pitch was far less impressive than the crowd. Some 65,000 fans flocked to watch football and handball in the stadium, which has since attracted millions of visitors and enjoyed many an hour in the sun, providing the backdrop for some of Austrian football’s finest moments.
This most modern and spacious of Austrian stadiums was once known as the Prater Stadium after the famous Viennese park where the architect, Otto Ernst Schweizer, chose to build his stadium, but in 1992, it was renamed as the Ernst Happel Stadium in a fitting tribute to one of the country’s greatest-ever players and coaches who had passed away earlier that year.
The 1930s had been the perfect time for Vienna to build its new stadium. Austria were one of the leading lights in the world of football with a raft of star names and one crushing victory after another. Indeed, it was in front of the packed terraces and stands of the Prater Stadium that the legendary Wunderteam, who went 14 games unbeaten, posted comfortable wins over Germany (5-0), Hungary (8-2) and England (2-1) before the dark days set in. During the Second World War, the stadium was used as a detention centre for Jews and opponents of the Nazi regime prior to their deportation, and today there is a plaque in the VIP area to remind visitors of the horrendous events that occurred there.
The stadium was bombed in 1944 and rebuilt – bigger and more modern – after the war. The opening match saw Rapid Vienna overcome Real Madrid 3-1 thanks to a hat trick from the man who would later give his name to the stadium, a certain Ernst Happel. Capacity crowds were commonplace in the stadium at this time. In 1960, 90,726 fans saw Austria beat the USSR 3-1, setting a record attendance that has never been and indeed never will be matched because the stadium was redesigned again in 1986 and brought up to the modern-day standards expected of all-seater, covered stadiums. Once again, the opening match in the revamped stadium proved to be one to remember with Austria inflicting an embarrassing 4-1 defeat on their great West German rivals, who at the time were coached by Franz Beckenbauer. Once again, the stadium was transformed into a deafening cauldron with — what else – “Austria forever” to the fore.
That is not to say that the stadium has not also reverberated to other songs, albeit often those of fans from other countries, because over the years Vienna has established itself as avenue par excellence for finals. The Austrian capital has played host to four Champions League/European Cup finals, one of which went down in history as one of the greatest in European football history. Who could possibly forget Rabah Madjer for instance, who shot to fame in 1987 when he scored a spectacular back-heeled goal to clinch victory for Porto over Bayern Munich? A young man called Patrick Kluivert also made a name for himself in Vienna by scoring the only goal of the game in Ajax’s 1995 victory over AC Milan, providing the springboard for big-money moves to some of Europe’s biggest clubs (AC Milan, Barcelona).
The Ernst Happel Stadium is not all about football though, as many a rock star has also graced the arena. If you cannot hear the “Austria forever” chorus ringing out, the chances are that there is a different type of music in the air as the Ernst Happel Stadium is also one of Austria’s premier concert venues, much like Wembley Stadium in London or the San Siro in Milan. Michael Jackson has played here, as have Tina Turner, Elton John, U2 and the Rolling Stones – all to 50,000 sell-out crowds.
One thine is for sure though, and that is that the average Austrian undoubtedly prefers a thrilling Austria home match to a big-name concert, even though it is also fair to say that Austrian fans and players have had little cause for celebration at the Ernst Happel Stadium in recent times. In fact, as the clock ticked down towards EURO 2008, Austria had to endure a deafening concert of cat-calls and whistles as the players once again found themselves unable to get back to winning ways. Yet as critical as the Austrian fans in the Ernst Happel Stadium can be, they are also connoisseurs who appreciate fine skill and spectacular goals, as they proved once again in two warm-up games for EURO 2008. Although the home team lost both games (3-0 to Germany and 4-3 to the Netherlands), the Austrian fans did not greet defeat with a concert of boos and whistles, and instead proudly belted out their traditional song with more than one eye on this summer’s festival of football.
“Austria forever”, the red-and-white army’s favourite song, will always be heard at the Ernst Happel Stadium … no matter how well or how poorly Austria fare at the European Championship on home soil.