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Formerly one of Europe’s great powers, the modern Republic of Austria has sadly degenerated into the continent’s grumpy, mildly racist old man, the kind of fellow who bends your ear at the bus stop, dispensing bemused ramblings like “This used to be a nice area” and “You’re not even allowed to call it Christmas anymore.”
Things weren’t always this way however. Back in their youthful days as the strapping head of the Hapsburg empire, Austria presided over huge swathes of central and eastern Europe, that is until one hell of a mid-life crisis in 1914 when some petty squabbles with the neighbours ultimately plunged the whole world into war, which was embarrassing. Still, never mind. At least that was as bad as things got. It’s not as if an Austrian would ever again play a part in kicking off a massively destructive global conflict. What’s that? Hitler was from where? Awkward.
Putting the two word wars aside, not to mention more recent atrocities such as the Josef Fritzl case and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dialogue in the Running Man (a film so risible it crosses briefly into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory before blundering out the other side into just being terrible again), Austria does have a less genocidal element to its culture. Classical music and opera are predictably a big deal given that the country has produced some of history’s greatest composers including Hadyn, Strauss and even Beethoven who, though German, spent most of his adult life playing to audiences in Vienna. The cherry on the sundae though would have to be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who famously died young but not before leaving behind some of the finest symphonies ever to soothe the ears of customers placed on hold. All the sadder then that Austrian music has since regressed to the point where its contemporary icons are a Eurovision drag-queen sporting a mighty beard or Julie Andrews gleefully strangling notes in The Sound of Music, a painful on the ears piece of cinema which features everything the title promises, and less.
One element of Austrian identity that hasn’t succumbed to change though is the country’s flag, said to be amongst the world’s oldest. Legend has it that the red, white, red banner was adopted from the blood-soaked tunic of Duke Leopold V who, following a particularly brutal battle in 1191, removed his belt leaving a thick white line bisecting the gruesomely decorated garment, a pattern he was so taken with he immediately adopted it as the national colours. Half an hour later, following a brief sojourn to the medicine cabinet for some industrial-strength painkillers, the now less than lucid Duke insisted his new flag should also feature a large black eagle and, less persuasively, a smiley face, two dancing skeletons and a camel made of ice cream.
Austrian sporting preferences are largely shaped by the country’s mountainous geography and skiing is very much the national obsession, although other winter sports such as tobogganing, skeleton and luge present further opportunities for citizens to take the scenic route to the hospital. Down on more level ground, football remains the most popular team sport even if the national side’s illustrious past has long since given way to mediocrity, with major tournament appearances now few and far between.
However, back in the 1930s, Austria’s ‘Wunderteam’ were an international superpower, becoming the first continental team ever to beat Scotland (presumably this coincided with their being the first continental team to actually play Scotland) and were heavy favourites for the 1934 World Cup only to come unstuck 1-0 against hosts and eventual champions Italy in the semi-final. Twenty years later the Austrians yet again experienced semi-final heartbreak at the 1954 tournament in Switzerland, losing 6-1 to West Germany but finishing third overall, their best ever effort.
Austria are one of the very few countries who have actually changed their first choice national colours in recent years. Seriously, this is rare. Imagine if the Italians one day dispensed with blue shirts and started sporting green in order to better imitate their flag, it just wouldn’t happen. They’d have to drop the whole “Azzurri” nickname for a start.
Anyway, Austria made the switch from their white/black combo to red shirts/white shorts in 2004 in an apparent attempt to distinguish themselves from neighbours Germany, something the national team had already been doing for years by being crap. This design dates from before the colour swap and was worn at France 98, the last time Austria played at the World Cup finals. During that tournament the Austrians accomplished the unique feat of scoring all three of their goals in injury time. While this did secure a couple of 1-1 draws against Cameroon and Chile, a 2-1 loss to Italy ultimately dumped them out at the group stage.