An emerging force from the most tranquil of surroundings.
The market square of Ried im Innkreis is a delightful surprise. Walking up the cold lanes, perhaps from the warmly hospitable Kaiserhof hotel, the visitor passes austere architecture resonant more of Austria’s central European heritage than of Ried’s geographical location, twenty-five miles from the German border and the expressive romanticism of Bavaria. Suddenly, however, the square opens up, a chocolate box of delights. The four-storey buildings are each painted different pastel colours; blues and yellows and oranges and greens of all hues brighten even the greyest, most snow-bound of days. It is a warm heart to this town, in truth barely more than a village, which is home to just 11,000 people. As Christmas approaches, many residents will huddle in the homely bars surrounding the square, enjoying the locally-brewed Rieder Bier. This is not a town one would ever expect to find on the sporting map of Europe; but somehow, in one of the minor football miracles of recent times, the local team, SV Ried, are on the brink of dominating Austrian football.
Football in Austria has long been polarised, honours split between the varying teams of the major cities. Vienna has Rapid, perhaps the most recognised name outside the country, and Austria, the violet-clad club of Czech immigrants which has won a record 23 League titles. Graz has Sturm, stars of the 1990s, and Grazer AK, a storied club fallen on hard times. Salzburg has the much-reviled Red Bull club, where continued success has been at the expense of the club’s very identity. In between these comparative giants, there are a host of smaller clubs from the towns and villages of pastoral Austria, all seeking upsets, few gaining more than fleeting success. The 250 kilometre A1, from Vienna to Salzburg, and the 200 kilometre A2, between Graz and the capital, have for decades been the only routes taken by serious observers of the Austrian game. The team that has made them add the rather smaller E552 to this map are, to say the least, unlikely interlopers.
In 2005, energy drinks giant Red Bull sent shock waves through the Austrian game with the purchase of Austria Salzburg. The team was renamed, the badge redesigned to incorporate, appropriately, two brash, aggressive red bulls, and the playing colours were changed to red and white from the traditional violet, worn since 1933. The takeover made headlines around the world, making Red Bull villains of uncaring capitalism, and Austria Salzburg’s fans a cause celebre amongst sympathetic counterparts. To the north, however, a similar corporate takeover had already taken place, to far less fanfare and outrage.
Josko Fenster und Turen make bespoke windows and doors. They specialise in the top end of the market; panoramic windows, glassy interiors for offices, penthouses and hotels. “Success knows no boundaries” announces the grandiose company literature. The executive proved this to be true, when they made the decision to move away from home furnishings, and invest heavily in a football team. The club they picked was SV Ried, the closest team of any size to the company headquarters in Kopfing. Ried formed in 1912, and spent most of their history kicking around the amateur, regional leagues of northern Austria. In the 1990s, they put together a strong squad, and began to ascend to the national leagues. Their ascent to the Bundesliga was completed in 1995. Whilst a considerable achievement, this should be seen in the context of the Austrian game, where several small, often tiny clubs make up the numbers in the top division. Today, for example, Kapfenberger, Wiener Neustadt and Mattersburg have places in the Bundesliga: not one can muster 5,000 spectators.
Ried, however, took things further. They wouldn’t settle for a place at the poorest end of the top table; they wanted to compete with the giants. In 1998, they won their first ever major trophy, the Pokal, defeating Sturm Graz in the final. It was an upset, certainly, but not an unprecedented one. The very top sides frequently adopt a loose, careless approach to the Pokal - teams like SV Stockerau, Swarovski Tirol and Kremser SC all preceded Ried as winners. Unlike these clubs, however, Ried did not fade back into the obscurity from whence they came. Josko Fenster arrived, and put their company logo on the shirts, their representatives in the boardroom, and their cash in the coffers. The team, officially, became SV Josko Ried.
The cash injection was not exactly Mubarak-esque, but it was enough. Ried, admirably, eschewed the common practice of cheap imports from Africa and Eastern Europe, and invested in youth development, constructing a team of young, Austrian talent. There were bumps along the way, relegation in 2003, flirtations with same following a return to the Bundesliga in 2005. But the foundations were laid, and success would follow. Last year, they finished fourth in the League, and won their second Pokal, defeating minnows Austria Lustenau in the final.
They don’t really ‘do’ goals in Ried’s compact home, the Keine Sorgen Arena. They’ve scored fewer than anyone else in the top six this season, but they boast an admirable defence and a fearsome ability to grind out results. They have few stars, not one player is a regular in the Austrian national side. Their big name, literally, is the wonderfully evocative Ignacio Diaz Casanova Montenegro. Casanova, as he is known to the fans and fraulein of northern Austria alike, is a journeyman forward from Alicante who has found his niche with Ried. Their defence is marshalled by Bienvenue Basala-Mazana, a youth product of FC Koln who holds German and Congolese nationality. He will surely be a target for the top German clubs soon.
At the winter break, only a slightly inferior goal difference to Rapid keeps Ried from the top spot in the Bundesliga. There is a long way to go until the bright spring sunshine lights up the Innkreis region and the Bundesliga title is decided. Many international fans, however, may yet be in for a surprise at Austria’s Champions League representatives in 2012. The friendly hosts at the Kaiserhof hotel might just be welcoming the giants of European football; none of whom will relish a trip to this pretty, obscure little corner of Austria.
Tom can be found on Twitter @tomclover.