Cultural adaptation is a key factor in football signings. Spending a fortune on a player from a country that’s completely different to the club’s, who speaks a language that has no linguistic roots in common with those of his new home and who is used to a style of play that couldn’t be more dissimilar to that of the league he’s about to play in, is a huge risk. Based on that, German clubs would only look at players from Central Europe but, of course, there are exceptions. Brazilian and German culture couldn’t be more different from one another and yet there have been Brazilian players who have been a success in the Bundesliga in recent years, such as Diego, Aílton, Giovane Elber, etc. Still, there have been many Brazilians who haven’t been able to follow their countrymen and have been complete failures due to lack of adaptation and homesickness (or, in Breno’s case, starting fires). However, east of Germany, there’s a country who was once the best in the world but who has fallen on hard times of late. Nevertheless, they speak German, have a similar culture to the German one and their players come at bargain prices.
If we go back more than 80 years to the early 1930s, Austria had the best football team on the planet, the Wunderteam, a team headed by Matthias Sindelar, Anton Schall, Josef Smistik and captain Walter Nausch, a team which scored freely and beat some of the best teams in the world at the time, including two victories over Germany (6-0 in Berlin and 5-0 in Vienna) in the space of just over four months. However, all of its players played in their native country and the team declined after the death of manager Hugo Meisl in 1937, Matthias Sindelar in 1938 and the Second World War. Today, Austrian players are light years away from the quality of their predecessors and have failed to make an impact in a competitions since their third place finish at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. However, this doesn’t mean that their players are bad; in fact, seven of their regular starting XI play in the Bundesliga and a further four on the fringes play either Bundesliga or 2. Bundesliga football.
Signing Austrian players has always been a cheap and useful resource for German teams. As explained above, the cultural differences are minimal and the transfer fees are low, so the buying team just has to focus on the quality aspect of the player. The record transfer between an Austrian club and a German club is just 2.5m€, what Werder Bremen paid for Sebastian Prödl back in the summer of 2008. However, Austrian football is definitely on the rise in Europe, and the transfer record for an Austrian player was broken this summer when Dynamo Kyiv paid 9m€ to FC Basel for the services of Alexander Dragović, formerly of Austria Wien.
Today, a total of 13 Austrian players play in the Bundesliga, 5.6% of the total of foreign players and fourth in the ranking behind Switzerland (7.3%), Brazil and the Czech Republic (both 6%), a figure which is a massive increase since the 3 (1.2%) playing in the 2006-2007 season. However, Austrians top the charts of foreign players in the 2. Bundesliga with 12, 7.1% of the total and 1.1% more than second-placed Croatia; and of the 3. Liga, with 9 players and 9% of the total, 2% more than France and Turkey in second place. This exemplifies how much German teams look to the neighbour in the east for reinforcements.
Bayern and Werder, flying the Austrian flag
Austrian players are usually very similar in terms of physicality (strong), technicality (good) and tactics (disciplined). Whilst not the greatest in terms of talent, one Austrian player has risen above the rest in very little time, establishing himself as one of the best left-footed players in Europe today; Bayern München’s David Alaba rose through the ranks of Austria Wien and joined Bayern at the age of 16, becoming Bayern and Austria’s youngest ever player in a competitive match within the space of four months between October 2009 and February 2010. No other player currently comes close to Alaba in terms of quality but the Bavarians are hoping for further Austrian talent rising in their academy, with seven other players from the neighbouring country playing for the U23 and U19 sides, including starlets like midfielders Alessandro Schöpf and Christian Derflinger and striker Kevin Friesenbichler.
Werder Bremen are also keen admirers of Austrian players, signing them not just from Austria but also from other countries. One of the best Austrian players in the 90s, Andreas Herzog, played for the team at the Weser for eight seasons in total as well a season at Bayern in between, racking up 289 appearances in total for the boys in green. Fellow countrymen have followed him in recent years, including the aforementioned Prödl, Zlatko Junuzović, Richard Strebinger (all currently at Werder) Martin Harnik (2007-2009) and Marko Arnautović (2010-2013). The list might not stop there, as prospects Michael Lerger and Florian Grillitsch are waiting in line for the U23 and U19 teams.
Reliable at the back, skillful in midfield, woeful up front
Earning a career revival at Augsburg is 36-year-old Alexander Manninger. Having previously played at Arsenal and Juventus among other clubs, he signed for the Bavarians in late 2012 having been out of contract for four months and he hasn’t looked back, currently being a key member of the side. In front of the goalkeeper, Austrian defenders are known for their toughness and aerial strength, characteristics that apply to stoppers Martin Stranzl (B. M’Gladbach) and Emmanuel Pogatetz (Nürnberg) as well as the aforementioned Prödl. While not the fastest defenders in the world, they do bring a world of experience to their sides acquired from playing abroad as well as leadership skills and steady marshaling in defence.
However, they can also be technically gifted with skills that show that the influence of the Wunderteam is not yet entirely lost in Austrian players. Mainz’s Julian Baumgartlinger is, subjectively, one of the best defensive midfielders in the Bundesliga, providing excellent attacking and defensive skills as well as being able to play with both feet and put in quality balls for the forwards whilst being very comfortable on the ball. Andreas Ivanschitz was touted as the greatest Austrian player of his generation when at Rapid Wien but his brief signing for Red Bull Salzburg and then Panathinaikos deterred his progress. He landed in the Bundesliga in 2011 and spent a couple of seasons alongside Baumgartlinger at Mainz, showing flashes of the brilliance that he could achieve with his left foot but finally decided to move on at the end of his contract to Levante in Spain. Also with a blessed left foot is Schalke’s Christian Fuchs. Able to put in one of the best crosses in the league and deliver excellent set-pieces, Fuchs was also at Mainz on loan from Bochum and later signed for die Königsblauen for 3.8m€ in 2011, after arriving in Germany from SV Mattersburg.
Perhaps up front is where Austria lack the most skill. Ever since Anton ‘Toni’ Polster graced the Müngersdorfer Stadion in Köln for five seasons between 1993 and 1998 during which he scored 83 goals, including 21 in the 1996-1997 season; and a less successful couple of seasons at Borussia Park (17 goals), there hasn’t been a great Austrian striker in the Bundesliga. Currently, the only Austrian striker with any success is Stuttgart’s Martin Harnik, who boasts 5 goals so far this season, a distant figure from the 17 he managed two seasons ago. Marko Arnautović departed before the end of August to Stoke after four highly disappointing seasons at Bremen while Erwin ‘Jimmy’ Hoffer didn’t fare much better for Eintracht Frankfurt last season, having little success for them and Kaiserslautern previously and now with Fortuna Düsseldorf in the 2. Bundesliga.
Prospects and golden oldies
There are also some Austrian prospects playing first-team football in the Bundesliga who could still flourish. Much was expected from Raphael Holzhauser at Stuttgart but he never managed to fully establish himself in the first team, so he was loaned to Augsburg for this season where he’s doing reasonably well if a little inconsistent. There’s also Freiburg’s Philipp Zulechner, who has barely been given minutes to impress by Christian Streich since his transfer this winter after his impressive Hinrunde with SV Grödig this season, in which he scored 15 goals. Kevin Stöger was also a Stuttgart youth player and was sent to Kaiserslautern this season to get match time under his belt but FCK manager Kosta Runjaic is finding it hard to give him playing time.
However, when it comes to golden oldies, Austrians do also have a place in Bundesliga history. Out of the top 100 foreign players with the most Bundesliga appearances, there are 3 in the Top 25; At #20 Andreas Herzog (264), the late Bruno Pezzey (255 appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen between 1978 and 1987) and Harald Cerny (254 appearances, 16 for Bayern München and 238 for 1860 München). At #48 comes Martin Stranzl (227), at #64 Wilhelm Huberts (213 for Eintracht Frankfurt between 1963 and 1970) and at #89 Kurt Jara (191 appearances between 1975 and 1981 for MSV Duisburg and Schalke 04), who later managed HSV and Kaiserslautern in the 00s.
All in all, Austrian footballers have always had a part to play in the Bundesliga but there’s no doubt that the standards are rising in recent years as we can see from the percentage of Austrian players playing in the top flight. Among the next ones to arrive is Austria Wien’s Philipp Hosiner, a striker who is starring in the Austrian Bundesliga and that has been touted to join teams like Hoffeinheim and HSV next summer; and Red Bull Salzburg’s Martin Hinteregger. What is for certain though is that we can expect the number of Austrian players to rise in the coming years as the quality of football is growing in the country and Bundesliga clubs will be all too pleased to pay low fees for good-quality players. They might not reach the heights of the Wunderteam but you can’t overlook cheap, reliable players who already speak German; half the work is already done.
Header courtesy of SID-Images.