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Capital Decline

Austria's greatest footballer is memorialised with a plaque next to a Burger King. It marks the flat in which he and his girlfriend died, either by suicide, poisoned by a faulty chimney or murdered by the Gestapo. No one knows for sure.


Mathias Sindelar was a child of Belle Epoque Vienna, and played in a manner befitting the good times. He danced through defences, evading tackles from much burlier opponents and scoring goal after goal. In 312 league games for Austria Vienna, he scored 240 times.

As the figurehead of Austria's great Wunderteam, he became one of the first commercial football stars. And when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, Sindelar's was a face Hitler wanted to show off.


A match was organised to celebrate the Anschluss between the two countries, the last to be played by an Austria team that was to be absorbed by its larger neighbour. Of course, a draw would be the only fitting result, to show two nations of equally great stature, and so the Austrians duly missed a string of chances.


But in the final 20 minutes, Sindelar refused to play along any more. He scored, and reportedly celebrated wildly in front of the Nazi dignitaries present. The game finished 2-0, and the Germans were humiliated. Sindelar then refused to play for the united German team.


Nine months after the Anschluss match, Sindelar and his girlfriend were found dead in their flat. The official cause of death is carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty chimney, but suicide has been suggested, and the Gestapo were known to have a file on him. The truth about Sindelar will likely never be known.


 

Whistles rain down from the stands in the Allianz Stadion. Middle fingers wave in the air. Beer mugs are hurled onto the pitch. Something else smashes into the net surrounding this end of the ground and crumbles. Was it a pretzel? A loaf of bread? The team come to clap the fans, hovering tentatively around the edge of the penalty box but not daring to come closer, despite the protective net.


I've made my visit to Sindelar's somewhat underwhelming plaque and I'm now watching the great rivals of his Austria Vienna team, Rapid. Austria and Rapid are the traditional heavyweights of Austrian football, having won the Bundesliga more times between them than every other team in the country combined. In recent years, though, their dominance has crumbled after Red Bull bought Salzburg and pumped the team full of cash.


I'm supposed to be in Amsterdam watching Ajax play Heerenveen, but circumstances have conspired to bring me here instead, over 1000km away. A useless Ajax ticket now sits in my pocket, and I join the queue for one to Rapid. The rain starts to fall gently, thinks again and then decides not to bother after all. By the time the sun comes back out, I have a ticket and am heading in.

What you need to know

- My ticket cost £27, but ranged from £22 in Block West to £42. This goes up a little for bigger Category A games, but not by much.

- Tickets can be bought through Rapid's website or on the day at the ground. You do not need to provide ID to get a ticket. Games are unlikely to sell out.


At the bag check, the steward isn't keen on my camera. His eyes narrow and his face screws up, twisting into an expression of doubt as he peers into my bag. He doesn't seem to want to call it definitively and beckons to his colleague for a second opinion. The colleague seems satisfied my lenses aren't big enough to sneak unaccredited match photos to the papers, and I'm allowed in.


There's a strange system for buying drinks, where you have to find people standing around the concourse selling special cards, which need money to be put on them which can then be spent at the bars. Any left over can then be redeemed as you leave, although quite why is uncertain.


In the stands, the fans are optimistic - Wolfsberger at home should be points in the bag. Not that it really matters. The Bundesliga is always won by Salzburg with their Red Bull cash; the old Viennese aristocrats haven't had a look in for years. Rapid have won it 32 times in their history, but not since 2008.


I'm sitting in the corner, next to the Block West where the ultras sit. As the game starts, a sea of great flags wave and the songs start. There are towers with men holding megaphones to guide the chants, while one man charts the overall direction, his gravel-throated voice booming out of loudspeakers, telling everyone else what to sing. The pack responds unfalteringly, respect for the leader evident in their obedience. One day, most likely, he will be dethroned, but for now he call the shots.


Block West is a terrace. The fans jump and sing and the noise grows as the game warms up. But things don't go to plan. After ten minutes, the ref consults VAR. There's a wait, the songs carry on but with some degree of uncertainty. Having looked at his screen, the ref awards Wolfsberger a penalty. Whistles and fury crash down in a torrent. Fists and fingers wave in the air, at the ref, at the opposition, at the pitch in general, but that doesn't stop it being scored. Within 15 minutes, they're 2-0 down and two more have been ruled out for offside as the home defence grows increasingly conspicuous in its absence.


After just 27 minutes, the left back is humiliatingly hauled off. He huffs towards his place on the bench, poking at a stray ball with his toe. Still the fans keep singing, though. The tunes are familiar to Premier League grounds, accompanied by booming drums and countless flags. It's loud and impressive. Whenever the ref or opposition players venture towards the goal (which is happening a lot), they bear a rush of whistles.


Midway through the second half, a third is scored and the game is up. This time, the ultras have had enough. The flags come down, rolled up and packed away ready for next time. The songs become less constant, sung with less fervour, even moments of quiet creeping in. With five minutes to go, the order comes through the loudspeaker to make a statement to the team. As one, the ultras of Block West turn their backs on the pitch and stand in silence. You aren't worthy of our attention. They don't see when Rapid get one back in injury time and barely react to it.


The full time whistle brings the return of the singing, defiant and proud in the face of the uselessness of their players. As the team come over to clap, the abuse starts, and the players look only too relieved to then be able to slink away to their dressing room.


Elsewhere, RB Salzburg have won 3-0 away leaving them clear at the top of the table, with both Rapid and Sindelar's Austria Vienna floating somewhere around the middle. After dominating for decades, the capital is now floundering. Austrian football has changed and, whether an uninspiring plaque outside a Burger King or two waning giants, the age of Viennese greatness is becoming a barely considered memory.

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