June 2016 has been the phoney month. After the deeply divisive second round of campaigning in May for the Austrian presidential election, we seemingly had a clear (albeit razor thin) winner. Heralding as it did so a return to consensus, sense and a huge “phew!” from half of the population and 30 thousand crucial voters and their handlers. Yet surprising Niemand, within seconds of the formal result being announced the whispers began, citing irregularities and conspiracy. Before social media such allusions to voting abnormality would have usually occurred across a smoky bar-top amidst pints of beer and the freakish absence on anything electronic that could sit in your pocket, vibrate or distract one from human interaction. But now we live and endure Twitter and Facebook giving a voice to millions (it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, in that smoky pub amidst pints of lager).
In any case, in a classic demonstration of a political party unable to break out of political puberty, the losing FPÖ mounted a legal challenge to the result. Such lack of grace in defeat and the very fact they have questioned the integrity of the Austrian voting system tells you much about how they respect institutions and history. But instead of withdrawing quietly they got to work on their 100 plus page dossier citing voter fraud, too many foreigners looking like they could have committed voter fraud if they could have voted, and too many foreigners influencing the votes of innocent Austrians in towns and villagers across Austria where few foreigners live (except the immigrant ancestors of members of the FPÖ).
The dossier was duly delivered to the Supreme Constitutional Court in Vienna (the least-worst translation) just as court officials were packing up for the weekend (Thursday lunchtime). Naturally, there was much fearful talk of overtime until court employees were reassured by their bosses that their traditional and legally enshrined Vienna Friday would not be at risk. However, to meet the constitutional demands of the nation and the sudden surge in pre-lunch Friday paperwork Beamter (civil servants) would be compensated for the extra hour of labour in the traditional Austrian manner with a three-week, all expenses paid rest-cure in the lower Alps.
But what of the FPÖ claims? Seemingly there were some procedures in some constituencies – or communes – which did not conform to the accepted electoral law. But rather than evidence of voter fraud or banana republic ballot paper tampering, initial findings from the court simply seem to suggest that this was all it was; administrative corner-cutting. Like opening or closing polling stations too early (seemingly agreed by all parties in the districts concerned). Or, again agreed by cross party committees including the FPÖ, counting some votes on Sunday rather than Monday as volunteers were anxious to:
- – get to the pub.
- – go back to work on Monday.
But it remains unclear at the time of writing whether this will be enough to force a re-run or a recount. What is evident, however, is that nobody I have spoken to subsequently has had any stomach for another election, except for the Christian Ronaldos of Austria’s political scene, the sore-losing far-right. Like the impending referendum in the UK, the election divided the nation and I don’t think people liked what they saw. Until that is they watched Austria’s opening game against its old Habsburg ally, Hungary, at the European Football Championships (they lost 2-0).
Going to work the next day after Austria’s opener was gloomy. A suitable backdrop was provided by incessant rain but even without the dark skies the mood was one of dejection (although often this has often nothing to do about football results or the weather – this is Vienna). What is important to remember is that in spite of the oft reported euphoria reported in the British media, Austria almost always approach international football matches with a sense of fatalism. In other words, they don’t expect to win or at least would never intimate it so like the swaggering presumption of, oh yes, the Germans. More interestingly, they would never even attempt to delude themselves or pretend they have a chance (only in skiing but even then it is a push).
Contrast this to Scottish football supporters (in any sport actually) who will always believe their team can win even if secretly they know they are out-gunned and out-classed. But this is the key attitudinal difference. Where other smaller nations demand an upset, Austrian fans will probably hope they don’t lose too badly.
Such an outlook has puzzled me over the years. But even in the knowledge that this time they have their best team since the late 1990s, they remain guarded and humble. Austrian fans know they have a chance (not too big, not too small) but expend enormous gratitude nevertheless in being given the opportunity to participate in a major football championship because such an event in recent years has been so rare. But the result against Hungary was a shock and I could sense the anger, muted and with a shrug of the shoulders as is the Austrian way.
Since then, most people have been distracted by the referendum in the UK. Yes, Britain, Europe is watching. And some of the comments I have heard have teetered between incredulity and the kind that could be summed up as “You don’t like it, then fack orf!” But then up popped a second group game in the Euros and a chance to dispense with pan-European politics and instead witness groups of fighting football supporters acting as a visual metaphor for relations within the EU with added tear gas.
In their second game Austria played Portugal which included their captain and now universally derided millionaire superstar after his ungracious comments about Iceland (the country not the frozen food UK supermarket chain). The game went to plan in that Ronaldo didn’t score, in spite of Iberian domination, and he missed a penalty in the 85th minute. This is reputed to have triggered howls of laughter across the continent and an intensity of grimace from Ronaldo not seen since Vladimir Putin was told he would be seated next to Conchita Wurst during his next state visit to Austria (President still unknown).
More importantly, Austria contrived to hang on for a draw, earning a valuable point and a chance to grab second place in the group if they beat Iceland on Wednesday. The phoney tournament was over. Austria had a point and there was everything to play for. Predictably, cards are being held close to chests and nobody is publicly taking anything for granted. But I sense the foreboding.
Thursday (the day after Austria were knocked out)
And so, in just over a week of football that began with such nervous excitement and anticipation, Austria were out, beating by a ferocious Icelandic team in spite of dominating possession. For a period in the second half, it seemed it was only a matter of time before they would get a second goal and the most valuable of three points taking them through to a last sixteen place against England. But pushing forward in injury time Austria left themselves open to counter attack and the now inevitable last gasp winner from Iceland. It was a cruel denouement. Crushing. Tearful. Slightly disbelieving (a little bit like going to Shopping City at Christmas).
Austria began the tournament badly. But even after this “phoney” start one sensed that it was simply first game nerves for the hipster team of choice (according to the eminent Guardian’s Football Daily podcast). Indeed, in fairness to Austria, almost every pundit and expert I read and listened to gave them a real chance. But the wounds will now run deep. Sporting trauma is in many ways part of being Austrian. Perhaps it is why I continue to admire the country and most of its citizens (except the fifty percent who think a vote for a political party built around creating division and fear of foreigners is the future).
We are facing uncertain times. The phoney summer is over and with it a return of the Viennese heat and the smell – literally – of dubious fashion choices. The Danube Island Festival kicks off tomorrow and worse it is the Siedlungsfest (a kind of street party in your neighbourhood). Oh yes, and the EU referendum in the United Kingdom. No worries there.
© RJ Barratt 2016
Author’s note: I began writing this entry a few days ago in the hope that it would be finished and published before the referendum result in the UK. Waking this morning at 6 o’clock my worst fears were realised. There was no milk for my tea. Worse I had to endure the smug face of Nigel Farage. Britain, it seemed, had voted to sever ties with the EU. The United Kingdom looks anything but united and the disappointment I now feel is palpable: anger, despondency and betrayal. In protest I have cancelled my flags for the England game on Monday (my kids wanted them but they don’t understand European politics and national symbols of identity just yet so tough). I shall drink tonight and raise a toast to all the many friends and family (well, maybe not my family) back home. Danke, Britain. Danke.
Friday, 24th June, 2106.