The Hoi Polloi Are Coming Vienna Uneasy about Approaching European Championships

Vienna is much more comfortable in the world of theater and high art, coffee and cake. But next weekend, thousands of football fans will descend on the city for the Euro 2008 soccer championships. Not everyone is pleased.
Von Marion Kraske

It was an historical moment. In 1978, the first subway line in Vienna opened for business, and the celebration was full of the pomp one would expect. Finally, residents from the working-class district of Favoriten could cruise into the heart of the city in less than 20 minutes. Not all, however, were pleased about the new train line. Now, complained the Viennese daily Die Presse, the city will be flooded with the hoi polloi. Not a few agreed with the paper.

This year, the masses are descending on the city once again. In just over a week, Euro2008, the European championship soccer tournament, will kick off in host countries Austria and Switzerland. And many of the fans are planning on heading straight to Vienna. Once the opening match between Switzerland and the Czech Republic on June 7 is out of the way, authorities predict that some 2 million fans in total -- or 100,000 guests per day -- will find their way to the Austrian capital. Tens of thousands from Poland and Croatia and a further 400,000 from Germany -- all teams in Group B along with Austria -- are expected.

The three and four star hotels in the city have been booked out for months. Even the ultra-sumptuous Hotel Sacher across from the Viennese Opera, will be packed, says Director Reiner Heilmann. The waiting list is extensive, and there is little chance of relief, even once teams are eliminated in the latter stages of the tournament, he says.

'Not Too Close'

The hotel is making sure that those guests that do make it through the doors receive the best service possible. From porter to chambermaid, all have to know when the games are and who is playing who. The chauffeurs are busy learning which streets will be blocked off when so that the guest limousine can make it to the games. In the antique-decorated hotel lobby, signs that normally inform guests about upcoming opera and theater highlights, will display important tournament information.

Despite the preparations, upper-class Vienna is more skeptical than excited about the coming tournament. "Let the Euro2008 take place, but not too close," seems to be the attitude. "I have an 86-year old mother. Do I have to lock her up at home?" asked a perfectly coiffed lady in a concerned voice at a recent public hearing at the Vienna city hall.

Like her, many are concerned for their safety and for their parking spots. Most of all, though, there is a widespread fear of football hooligans, drunken fans charging through the city center, and the English. The news that England failed to qualify for this year's tournament doesn't seem to have reached the ears of Vienna's upper crust.

Heinz Palme is fully aware of his compatriots' concerns. The tall 49-year-old was the head organizer of the tremendously successful 2006 World Cup in Germany. Now, he is head of the Austrian organization committee -- charged with transforming a nation of skiing fans into football freaks. "We have tried over and over again to make it clear that during tournaments like the World Cup and the European Championships, it is mostly the totally normal fans who come -- the ones who just want to party," Palme says. Hooligans, he points out, tend to be fans of club teams and not of national teams.

The bar, two years after the World Cup, is high. Virtually everyone agrees that the World Cup in Germany was an organizational triumph and a tournament tour de force. But Austria, Palme says, needs only a bit of luck to stage a repeat. In every Viennese, Palme is convinced, "can be found a football fan."

Like in 1990. Back then, the country experienced a "wave of excitement," Palme says, when the Austrians managed to beat the East Germans 3:0 during a World Cup qualifer match. This time, Palme hopes, if the weather plays its part and the Austrian team does only slightly better than the low expectations most have of it, the tournament could be a wild success in Austria.

Euphoria Nowhere to Be Found

For now, though, euphoria is nowhere to be found. Surveys have found that one-third of Austrians don't care about the tournament at all. In the heart of Vienna, indications that the world's second biggest football tournament are about to start are almost impossible to find -- even if the Euro2008 will be, along with the 1976 Winter Olympics, one of the most important sporting events in the country's history. A few intersections are graced with red, blue and yellow soccer-player models made of wood, and shops have now placed a few football trinkets next to the standard Vienna souvenir fare. But that's about it.

More, however, is to come. Once the ball starts rolling, the center of Vienna will host a "fan mile" like those that dotted Germany two summers ago. Eight-hundred meters of the city's famous Ringstrasse, circling the heart of the capital, will be closed off for 70,000 fans to watch the games on giant screens. For three weeks, the center of Vienna -- normally home to the elegantly dressed rushing from the museum to the café for afternoon coffee and cake -- will be given over to beer-swilling soccer enthusiasts.

Even the horse-drawn cabs will have to find alternate routes. "It will be difficult for us -- all the highlights will be closed off," says Wolfgang Fasching, a man with a dramatically curled moustache, long ponytail and well-used derby. "Personally, I am excited about the tournament," he says as he gives his two horses a bucket of water. "But as a cab driver, I'll be happy when it's over."

Just a few steps away is the famous Volksgarten, Vienna's famous city-center park. The park too will be closed for the duration of the soccer event. There are more than 1,000 rose bushes growing here, rare types such as the "Gloria Dei" and the "Freedom Bell." They have to be protected at all costs, says Gerd Koch, caretaker of the garden. "The garden was first created in 1820. If the fans were allowed in, the plants here would be in danger."

'Boozing, Chanting, Pissing and Barfing'

In Berlin after the World Cup, vast quantities of contaminated soil had to be removed, Koch says full of concern. Vienna is doing what it can to prevent such problems. There will be 1,200 portable toilets set up along the fan mile -- double what is necessary, say officials. Still, writes Vienna'sStandard, it is incomprehensible that the noble city center will be turned over to football fans when everyone knows their proclivity for "boozing, chanting, pissing and barfing."

Such human activities will no doubt be avoided among the VIPs attending the more noble Euro2008 parties -- such as the 600 guests invited to toast the tournament in the dignified atmosphere of the Burg Theater. Two large companies have rented the theater, which will be empty for the duration of the tournament anyway. All performances have been cancelled due to the noise expected outside the front door.

For the moment, however, no one really knows exactly what it will be like when hundreds of thousands of fans descend on the UN Cultural Heritage-listed city center. The dress rehearsal, though, was a mini-disaster. Even though the mood in the Vienna stadium was party-like during the international friendly between Germany and Austria at the beginning of February, the organization showed serious shortcomings. Buses and streetcars could hardly cope with the storm of fans. And after a melee at a sausage stand, even the police couldn't find their way through the crowds -- an elite unit got stuck in traffic. A new subway line, built especially for the tournament, will ease the situation, city officials say.

The police have also been busy preparing. Viennese cops have imported a security concept from neighboring Germany which emphasizes dialogue and de-escalation before using force. It was a system that worked well during the World Cup, but police in Vienna are hardly known for their benevolence, especially where foreigners are concerned. There have been cases of asylum seekers dying in police custody and police even once handcuffed a German retiree and led him away with their weapons drawn. Austrian officers will be working closely together with police from elsewhere in Europe during the three-week event. Germany is sending 800.

Draconian Penalties

But at least the cleanup crews can hope for success. Vienna is considered one of the cleanest cities in Europe, and it will be sending out workers every night to make sure the streets and sidewalks are sparkling by sunrise.

Still, despite the months of preparation, the Austrians almost forgot one important aspect of the tournament -- the party itself. Justice officials recently let their compatriots know that, according to official regulations, only the high state representatives are allowed to fly flags from their cars. Those letting patriotic euphoria get the better of them could be hit with draconian penalties.

Transportation Minister Werner Faymann proved far-sighted enough to intervene before the discussion escalated to an embarrassment. He suspended the regulation for the duration of the tournament. Flag-waving patriotism has thus been officially rubberstamped. Let the games begin.

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