Hannes Richter

Soccer as a Field of Integration?

Hannes Richter
Soccer as a Field of Integration?

Top Photo: Pexels.com, Serkan Göktay

A Historical Perspective

By Matthias Marschik and Georg Spitaler

Europe is on the move in a variety of ways. Fundamental questions of race, class, gender, age and nation-state are subject to discussion and have to be redefined. In this debate, it is particularly important to consider a third major influence besides political decision makers and the civil society: This third factor is popular culture.

After all, it has been characters like Conchita Wurst, the bearded lady and winner of the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 or the soccer star David Alaba who have had a positive and broad impact on discussions about diversity in Austria in recent years. Considering the level of euphoria that the participation of Austria’s national soccer team in this year’s European Soccer Championship has triggered, despite its unsuccessful performance at the tournament, it seems worth taking a closer look at constructions of identity and belonging in the context of the Austrian national sporting world.

A political paradigm of integration

Over the last few years, a change in politics: The former sports policy that focussed on assimilation rather than promotion or acknowledgment of specific societal groups has given way to a strategy that considers sports as an effective means to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities or migrants.

Consequently, soccer has been discovered as a symbolic vehicle of integration by more than just politics. This is why the definition of “integration” is quite contested: It ranges from the insistence on cultural assimilation, for example with regard to the traditions of the Austrian clubs and associations, to an emphasis on performance and success as an “entry ticket” to society to the conscientious celebration of diversity as a valuable asset for society; even though the latter tends to substitute the term "integration" with less one-sided concepts such as participation or social inclusion.

At amateur level, as a matter of fact, people from different social and ethnic backgrounds not only play in one team, but also spend more and more time together off the soccer field. And in professional soccer, players with a migration background even become praised role models: Take, for example, foreign players like Ivica Vastic in the 1990s, who was naturalized from Croatia, or today’s second-generation national team soccer players such as David Alaba, Viennese son of Nigerian-Phillipino parents, his Austrian-Serbian teammate Marko Arnautovic or even Zlatko Junuzovic, who fled to Austria from the war in Bosnia with his parents.

But this is only one part of the story. Since the 1990s, there has been an ongoing discussion about “too many foreigners” in professional soccer in Austria, who have been made partly responsible for the intermittent national soccer crisis. This debate has been taken up by politics, especially by the right-wing populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Concerns about one’s “own” junior players fit well into populist models and media that generally presented themselves as advocates for the locals against the threat from abroad.

And yet, in 2014, Andreas Moelzer, front-runner of the FPÖ in European elections at that time, had to resign following the surfacing of an article in the right-wing newspaper Zur Zeit, which was supervised by him. In the respective publication, David Alaba was derogatorily referred to as “pitch-black” and his status as a “real Austrian” was questioned (similar statements about German soccer players were made by the political party AfD [Alternative for Germany] prior to the European Soccer Championships 2016). But the outright support and popularity of the successful Bayern-München-star was too strong for such racist remarks to have appeared acceptable to the public at large.

The anglophile origins

In this article, we would like to show that such discussions about immigration and inclusion in the field of soccer are nothing new. Soccer has always been a sport of migrants in Austria, especially in contrast to German-National gymnasts, rowers or sailors. The latter groups prided themselves on serving a Germanic homeland, while English sports have always considered themselves more international from the very beginning, i.e. the end of the 19th century.

For instance, the first soccer players from Vienna have almost exclusively been employees of British companies and their audience during those firstmatches also camemostly from the British community. The fact that soccer was new, modern and open-minded further fostered its integrative power. Very early on, a transnational player transfer system was established and so-called “legionaries” came from other countries into the Austro- Hungarian Empire to play soccer. What seems most striking, however, is the fact that soccer managed to get the working class, especially young workers, enthusiastic about this initially middle-class sport, which successfully incorporated them into their clubs. Additionally, Vienna’s Jewish community, which amounted to approximately 10 percent of the population by the end of the monarchy in 1918, could get involved in sports and particularly in soccer relatively easily.

Consequently, they served as active players as well as officials. And yet, soccer did not succeed in overcoming tensions within the monarchy related to questions of nationality. Moreover, women remained marginalized in the sports industry as well.

The interwar period

After 1918, soccer became a modern mass phenomenon in Vienna within a few years. Other larger cities only followed with considerable delay and the provinces did not even catch up until after 1945. Soccer’s rising popularity in Vienna was largely based on the increased amount of leisure time among the inhabitants, combined with the vigor among workingclass males, who chose soccer as their primary spare time activity (similarly to the popularity of movies among women at that time).

This development was further fostered by the fact that soccer had managed to establish a European, almost global network of contacts that organised international matches as well as international club matches or tournaments. Vienna, Prague and Budapest formed the center of the strong “Danube soccer,” which was increasingly considered the Central- European counterpart to British soccer.

From the beginning of the 1920s onwards, soccer expanded its influence far beyond the limits of the sporting world as a form of popular culture. Thus, its norms and values had an impact on large parts of the population. Inclusion and exclusion constituted central themes in this kind of soccer culture which developed in a somewhat ambivalent form. In the following paragraphs, this idea will be illustrated in relation to key questions of race, class, nation-state and gender.

"Soccer legionaries”

At the beginning of sports life in Austria, the British had gradually started to “integrate” individual Austrian players and athletes into their clubs, as the legendary Viennese soccer player, Max Leuthe, had still been telling years afterwards.

 The Austrian Wunderteam, Painting from 1948 (left to right) Rudolf Hiden, Roman Schramseis, Leopold Hofmann, Josef Blum, Hans Mock, Josef Smistik, Georg Braun, Karl Gall, Karl Zischek, Matthias Sindelar, Adolf Vogl, Friedrich Gschweidl; (middle row) Coach Hugo Meisl, Karl Rainer, Anton Schall; (front) Karl Sesta, Captain Walter Nausch  Photo: Wien.gv.at

 The Austrian Wunderteam, Painting from 1948
(left to right) Rudolf Hiden, Roman Schramseis, Leopold Hofmann, Josef Blum, Hans Mock, Josef Smistik, Georg Braun, Karl Gall, Karl Zischek, Matthias Sindelar, Adolf Vogl, Friedrich Gschweidl; (middle row) Coach Hugo Meisl, Karl Rainer, Anton Schall; (front) Karl Sesta, Captain Walter Nausch
Photo: Wien.gv.at

He had even anglicized his first name to “Mac John” to be accepted. But around 1918, the situation had already changed considerably. Soccer in Vienna had long been bringing forth their own stars, of which many had originally come from former crown lands of the monarchy. This also underlined the essential integrative power of soccer. For instance, half of the players in the “Wunderteam” (miracle team) at the beginning of the 1930s, such as Matthias Sindelar and even their coach, Hugo Meisl, were of Czech descent.

Meisl also had a Jewish family background. For a lot of the Czech players, even for those who were less well known, soccer earned them social acceptance and upward mobility. However, the situation was very different for the numerous Hungarian players, who had mostly come to Vienna as “legionaries” to flee the Hungarian Soviet Republic or the following counter revolution lead by Miklós Horthy. Some of them only stayed in Vienna for a short period of time like legendary Imre “Slozi” Schlosser while others, such as the brothers Kálmán and Jenö Konrád, remained in Vienna for a few years.

Some even stayed for a longer period of time (e.g.: Béla Guttmann). And yet, their status depended on their success: They were praised if they had performed well and condemned if they had not. The Jewish S.C. Hakoah was an exception: When the large Zionistic all-round sports club became the first professional Austrian soccer champion in 1925 with a team that included six Jews from Budapest, Hakoah claimed that the players would be no “legionaries” as they are part of a Jewish nation. This caused resentment and anti-Semitic assaults by their opponents.

Working Class

Even if the fundamental concepts of soccer were middle-class, the public image had long changed to the opposite by 1918: Workers were the driving force with regard to its popularization and won equal rights on the field. They also contributed the majority of athletes and audience members. This way, sports in general and soccer in particular constituted an important milestone for the emancipation, recognition and equal treatment of blue collar workers. This was especially true when the media compared the “healthy sport” of the suburban proletarian teams to the profit-oriented approach of the middle class clubs in the city.

The Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP), which ruled in Vienna by widespread consent until 1934, was displeased with the fact that the working class participated in bourgeois clubs as players or paying spectators. It tried to establish a separate proletarian way of soccer that would form its own organizations and clubs and would not compete with the bourgeois clubs. It should promote the ideals of the “new human” beyond the borders of “Red Vienna” and recruit those workers for their movement that were still undecided.

Furthermore, it should also become a party-affiliated organization of the party’s paramilitary branch, the Republikanische Schutzbund. Soccer was a means of integration as well as bonding for the working class, which often did not see their participation in the rivaling bourgeois and labor sports movements as a contradiction.

Women in soccer

Women’s sports were a minority phenomenon during the interwar period: Especially competitive sports were opposed for medical, psychological and aesthetic reasons.The middle-class wanted to restrict physical training of women to gymnastics while the working-class considered women’s sports to be “of the same value but not of the same kind.” It was only in figure skating, swimming, and partly in track & field as well as skiing that women could catch the attention of a larger audience.

It was a way of highlighting their performance capability, but first and foremost, female athletes functioned as role-models for younger girls. Women’s soccer was frowned upon in general. Nevertheless, there were matches between female teams in 1917, 1923 and 1935 to 1938. They were able to take place only because of male promotion in view of the economic crisis in men’s soccer and were supposed to fill the coffers again.

However, the matches of 1935 had longer term consequences, as women enthusiastic about soccer began to play regularly at the national and international level. From 1936 onwards, they established a separate league that included 10 teams against the will of the Austrian Soccer Association (ÖFB) and had a higher average number of spectators than some male teams. And yet it took decades for women’s soccer to achieve similar institutional integration particularly from the 1990s onwards. So in the end, soccer turned out to be ambivalent with regard to social recognition of women.

Jewish officials and players

The Emblem of S.C. Hakoah  Photo: Wikimedia

The Emblem of S.C. Hakoah
Photo: Wikimedia

Similar to developments among the German and Austrian Alpine Associations and Ski Federations, some members of the Austrian soccer association tried to introduce so-called “Aryan Paragraphs” as early as 1919. Those written statutes or unwritten rules prohibited Jews from participating in activities or serving as players or officials. Still, Jewish players and officials succeeded in using the sports life of the interwar period to gain confidence and preserve their diverse identities as players and officials in many different ways: While some tried to set aside their Jewish heritage in sports by participating in non- Jewish clubs, others emphasized their Jewish identification in Zionistic sports clubs.

Although verbal assaults in reaction to Jewish athletes occurred again and again, those insults were often rather moderate in sports media - of course with the exception of German National and Nazi newspapers. Team manager Hugo Meisl, for example, was rarely referred to as a Jew, even though or maybe because everyone was aware of his Jewish background. Furthermore, the Jewish descent of Theodor Schmidt, head of the Austrian Olympic movement for 10 years, was not even mentioned in newspapers. Similarly, the soccer club Floridsdorfer AC, which was quite successful in the 1920s, was never designated Jewish despite the fact that it had four consecutive Jewish presidents.

Consequently, modern sports served as one of the prime spots for the development of Jewish confidence and emancipation. In contrast to Jewish politicians, doctors, lawyers or tradespeople, Jewish athletes met less resistance from the gentile society. Nevertheless, there were limits to Jewish integration in sports: If an official or a player was criticized, anti-Semitic stereotypes were commonly used.

This was especially true when Jews openly highlighted their Jewishness such as in the case of the SC Hakoah. This club became the target of anti-Semitic resentments when it started to be successful in soccer in the mid-1920s and in swimming in the 1930s. The more successful and confident they presented themselves, the more the joint sports practice became restricted or even prohibited. Nevertheless, sports became a potential place for integration during the First Republic between the two World Wars, even though this phenomenon still remained limited and ambivalent.

Soccer Migration During the Second Republic

Nazism and the Second World War initially ended such practices. The Jewish community in Vienna was reduced to a few thousand people after the Shoah and the Czech minority was essentially non-existent after 1945 as they were either repatriated or assimilated. When Slovan HAC, formerly a club of Viennese Czechs, played in Austria’s highest league in 1949/50, not a single Czech player remained in the team anymore according to news reports.

Today, some of the best Austrian players of the 1950s such as goalkeeper Walter Zeman or center field star Ernst Ocwirk would probably be referred to as children of the second generation. Back then however, their Bohemian and Yugoslavian family background was not publicly discussed.


Following the end of the war in 1945, two main groups of refugees stranded in Austria and also left their traces in the country’s soccer industry: On the one hand “Displaced Persons” (DPs), i.e. former forced laborers, prisoners of war and survivors of the concentration camps; on the other hand, German-speaking refugees from Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia. While most DPs only stayed temporarily, 530.000 from the latter group remained in Austria permanently.

Soccer became a popular activity to pass the time in refugee camps and some teams even entered official leagues in the Western provinces. But the Austrian Soccer Association opposed the admission of “foreigners and stateless people.” As early as 1948, a recommendation was released to limit the number of Non-Austrian players to three per team and game. Due to FIFA regulations, foreign players additionally needed the approval of their home clubs and federations, which was impossible to meet by most refugees.

The issue of those refugees and the DPs was largely tabooed in sports media. Only the Hungarian Crisis in 1956 became a much discussed topic as numerous well-known players of Hungary’s “golden team” such as Ferenc Puskás had fled to Austria.

Work-related migration

From the 1960s onwards, economic recovery led to work-related migration to Austria. The republic signed a labor recruitment agreement with Turkey in 1964 and one with Yugoslavia two years later. In the field of soccer, the recruitment of players from abroad had started even earlier than that. In addition to Hungarians, especially citizens of Yugoslavia and Germany were called into action starting in 1960.

Moreover, the first Brazilian players were hired. The best-known among them was Waldemar Graciano, aka “Jacaré,” who signed a contract with FK Austria Vienna in 1962. Contrary to those star athletes, the “foreign workers” or Gastarbeiter, as they were called back then, came to Austria as cheap labor. As the economic situation changed, the Republic imposed a recruitment ban in 1973.

At that time, approximately 230.000 foreign employees lived in Austria and a year later, the same ban was imposed for soccer players. As part of reforming the league system, no new “legionaries” were to be hired starting in 1974/75. This step was justified by weak results of the national team and concerns about Austrian junior players. In 1977 however, this regulation was abolished again.

The second generation

Although the recruitment of foreign workers was thought of as a temporary measure in Austria, people stayed, founded families or their families back home followed them. Soccer played a major role for those communities from the very beginning. As early as 1970, the first Yugoslavian amateur clubs were founded in Austria. Two years later, their first amateur league followed, which included not less than 117 clubs by 1980.

With regard to access to official amateur leagues however, Gastarbeiter without an Austrian passport were long denied participation due to the regulations of the Austrian Soccer Association as described above. Still, more and more young aspiring players were second generation immigrants. But despite the fact that parks in the cities were full of young migrant players, exceedingly few of those Turkish and Yugoslavian adolescents that had grown up in Austria moved on to professional soccer. Implicit mechanisms of exclusion and explicit racism were obstacles to their success.

It was not until 1999 that the naturalized first child from a “Gastarbeiter”-family, Zoran Barisic, made his debut in the Austrian national team. He later became head coach of Rapid Vienna, Austria’s most popular soccer club, until June of 2016. In the following years, the participation of this “second generation” in the national team became more and more common. This phenomenon was discussed in the media when Austria co-hosted the European Championships together with Switzerland in 2008 and Yugoslavian-born Ivica Vastic scored Austria’s only goal during the tournament.

In any event, he had already been declared a “real Austrian” by the Austrian tabloid Neue Kronen Zeitung after scoring a decisive equalizing goal in the last minute during the World Cup in 1998. Similarly, Ümit Korkmaz, a Viennese soccer player of Turkish migration background, became one of the most popular Austrian players of the EURO 2008. But still, one of the most discussed questions during the tournament was who the Turkish and former-Yugoslavian communities in Austria cheered for. Until then, the Austrian professional clubs had hardly ever attempted to reach out to migrant fans to win their support. Also, reports about local fans of the successful Turkish and Croatian teams that celebrated in the Viennese district of Ottakring ranged from support to concerns about violent outbursts.

Political Debates Historically, fierce debates about migration were common in Austrian soccer much earlier as compared to the general public. Moreover, these debates were more accessible and often centered on individual players or coaches as some of them came from countries that were still considered exotic in Austria in the 1960s.

From the 1990s onwards, such discussions turned explicitly political and became part of party politics: The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the Bosman-decision by the European Court of Justice in 1995 and the deregulation of the player market that came with it have all had some kind of influence on soccer in Austria. After the opening of the labor market for soccer players, the increase in foreign players was criticized by various commentators. And as the Austrian national soccer team did not qualify for any major tournament for a long time following theWorld Cup in 1998, this debate on migration was often related to the fate of the national team as a whole.

 The Austrian National Team in 2016 (back row, left to right) David Alaba, Robert Almer, Marc Janko, Martin Hinteregger, Marco Arnautovic (front row, left to right) Aleksandar Dragovic, Christian Fuchs, Julian Baumgartlinger, Martin Harnik, Zlatko Junuzovic, Florian Klein  Photo: Wikimedia/steindy

 The Austrian National Team in 2016
(back row, left to right) David Alaba, Robert Almer, Marc Janko, Martin Hinteregger, Marco Arnautovic (front row, left to right) Aleksandar Dragovic, Christian Fuchs, Julian Baumgartlinger, Martin Harnik, Zlatko Junuzovic, Florian Klein
Photo: Wikimedia/steindy

As if this issue kept on turning in circles, the “crisis” in soccer was linked once more to the rising number of foreign players. It was claimed that really good players would not stay in Austria and primarily mediocre players from abroad remained and would block the local youth’s way. What was not mentioned however was the fact that the phenomenon of criticizing “mediocre foreign players” was nothing new. Indeed, similar reactions had been observed since the 1960s. Derogatory comments about allegedly “third-class legionaries” also partly resulted from resentments against the central- and southeast European home countries of a lot of those players.

What was new about the debates however was that the issue was taken up by political actors. This is especially true for the FPÖ, which was part of a center-right coalition government starting in 2000. In general, the populist FPÖ and its break-away BZÖ have been trying to benefit in various ways from popular discussions on sports for the last 25 years. In particular, interventions by FPÖ’s sports spokespersons for example, then-Vice- Chancellor and Minister for Sport Susanne Riess-Passer, seemed to be an attempt to continue their national identity policies in the field of sports. Thus, anti-foreigner-argumentation lent itself to adaption for a broader political discourse.

On the one hand, the “Austrian Way” in soccer could be used as an example in popular culture for the FPÖ’s advocacy for the interests of “the locals,” on the other hand, however, another explicitly “political” aspect began to surface around the year 2000 in sports media as an argument in favor of foreign players; they were now seen as living examples of social diversity and successful integration together with “second generation” players.

In this respect, soccer took a leading role, at least with regard to their positive connotation. At present, about a third of the Viennese population was born abroad or holds a non-Austrian citizenship. In Austria at large, about one fifth has a migration background. Despite exaggerated believes in the integrative power of sports, Austria’s national team now represents the current ethnic and cultural makeup of society more than ever.

However, this is not self-evident in Austria. For example, media coverage of Austria’s second national sport, Alpine skiing, illustrates an ethnically more homogenous and “white” image of the country. Yet, in current political conflicts in Austria, a right-wing nationalistic stance on the national soccer team also meets opposition. In 2015, during the European refugee crisis, the national team itself addressed the public in a statement and demanded understanding and support of refugees, considering the experiences of their own family members.

So, regardless of their early exit in this year’s European Championships, the Austrian stars will continue to offer material for discussion in the debate about integration. This is something that has not changed over the course of the past 130 years of this modern sports movement: Soccer has the potential for participation and inclusion of various groups in society, but does not necessarily do so unless various stakeholders articulate the issue and include them in projects on a broader social and political scale.


Matthias Marschik, Dr. phil. habil., Study of Psychology and Philosophy, Habilitation in contemporary history. Lecturer at the Universities of Vienna, Salzburg and Klagenfurt. Numerous publications on the popular cultures of sports in general and soccer in particular as well as publications concerning questions of individual and collective identity. At the moment, Scientific Researcher at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna.

Georg Spitaler, Dr. phil., Study of Political Science and History. Until the end of 2014, Post-Doc-Assistant at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna. Since 2015, research fellow at the “Verein für die Geschichte der ArbeiterInnenbewegung” VGA (Society for the history of the worker’s movement). Numerous publications on the history of sports and critical cultural research, e.g.: “Legionäre am Ball. Migration im österreichischen Fußball nach 1945”, Wien 2008 ("Legionaries on the Move. Migration in Austrian Soccer After 1945" in cooperation with Barbara Liegl) .

Both authors are currently engaged in the project “Jewish Sports Officials in Interwar Vienna” that is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).