The Habsburg Derby Returns: Football in the Austro-Hungarian Empire

The Austro-Hungarian Empire is long gone, but its influence lingers on through football. Today in Bordeaux, we'll see that influence once again.
June 14, 2016, 2:26pm
Austria and Hungary play in 1913, five years before the empire fell // Image via

Otto von Habsburg was perhaps the originator of a joke you'll probably be hearing quite a lot during the European Championships this summer. He was the unfortunate soul who was the last heir to the imperial throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but didn't get to actually sit in his big shiny chair, as rather inconveniently it was broken up while his father was still in charge. Still, despite this crushing blow, he did manage to forge himself a career in politics, and it was while he was in parliament some decades later that an aide asked if he'd seen the previous evening's Austria-Hungary football international: "Who were we playing?" asked the old boy.


On Tuesday in Bordeaux, in Group F of Euro 2016, Austria will face Hungary for the first time in 10 years. It's the first time the two nations will have faced each other in a major tournament since 1934, when Austria beat their former imperial cousins 2-1 in a World Cup quarter-final, but it nevertheless represents an underrated and bubbling rivalry, with its roots deeply ingrained in the past of the two countries.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, as you'll well know, was established in the 1860s and effectively dissolved at the end of the First World War. While there might perhaps have been a few other more pressing concerns at the time – the business of building an empire, for example – this was also the time of organised football's birth, not least in Hungary and Austria. Not that it was necessarily welcomed with open arms. The game was introduced to Hungary at some point in the 1870s. Nobody quite knows exactly by who or exactly when, but by the turn of the century it was established enough to attract that mark of respect that most of life's enjoyable things earn at some point: someone tried to ban it.

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In 1900 a game between two of the earliest teams in Budapest – the Hungarian Athletics Club and the Berliners – descended into a pitched battle in which several players suffered serious injuries. This was taken as a sign of football's inherent brutishness. It was proposed by a Budapest city council member that football should be banned in all schools, and there was further debate about whether it should be allowed at all. The fun-police didn't win that particular round, but the Hungarian upper classes still regarded football as a violent sport for the undeveloped masses, and treated it with great suspicion.

As ever though, the people spoke and football became increasingly popular. Domestic organisation was patchy at best in the early part of the century, but that didn't prevent the first international between Hungary and Austria from taking place in 1902. Austria would win that game 5-0, but that proved not to be a sign of things to come: they would win only five of the following 20 internationals in the next decade, as Hungary established the first of their great teams, under the guidance of former inside-left and Olympic gold medal winning fencer Alfred Hajos-Guttmann.


The rivalry was informed – if not fuelled – by their relative places in the empire. The perception of Hungary was as the slightly subservient partner of the two, something exemplified by the incident in 1905 when their FA received an invitation to the second FIFA congress. The problem was that the invitation was actually sent via the Austrian association, as if Hungary was a sub-department that could tag along if they wanted, and perhaps justifiably they took umbrage at the perceived snub and turned the invitation down.

Despite – or perhaps even because of – this relatively low-level squabbling, football seemed to become more established as part of life in Austria and Hungary than in other European countries who had adopted the game earlier. In 'The Ball Is Round: A Global History Of Football', David Goldblatt writes: "They created an entrenched popular football culture in which the game was played by a broad spread of the social scale and which could draw on growing and passionate crowds."

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While the rivalry remains strong it is, and always has been, a decidedly local tussle. But the Austro-Hungarian Empire did bequeath a more lasting gift to football: the European Cup. In the 1890s, a Londoner called John Gramlick moved his family and his plumbing business to Vienna, where he helped form the Vienna Cricket and Football Club (still going, and known colloquially as 'Cricketer'), the second-oldest team in Austria. In 1897, Gramlick decided to expand both his and the game's horizons by setting up the first 'international' club cup competition, a tournament known simply as the Challenge Cup. Technically open to all clubs in the Empire, it was generally restricted to teams from Vienna, Budapest and Prague (then part of the the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Vienna Cricket won the first tournament, which was sporadically held over the next decade or so, fizzling out in 1911, but its legacy lasted rather longer than that.

Gramlick's competition was the inspiration for the Mitropa Cup, a tournament founded in 1927 that saw teams from Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and later Italy, compete against each other. For some years it was a pretty prestigious prize, before gradually diminishing; by the 1970s and '80s it had become a competition for winners of Europe's second tiers (AC Milan won it following their promotion in 1982), but that was largely because it had been superseded by a competition it helped to inspire. The Mitropa, along with the grandly-named South American Championship of Champions, served as inspiration for Gabriel Hanot, editor of L'Equipe, to propose the introduction of the European Cup in 1955. We all know how that panned out.

With the game's popularity spreading throughout Europe in the late 1890s and early 1900s, some sort of continental competition was always going to be established eventually, but Gramlick's brainchild was the first, paving the way for the rest. These days, while clubs in the Champions League swim around in piles of cash like Scrooge McDuck, the Mitropa has returned to its roots somewhat: it's now a regional tournament for amateur sides in western Hungary, western Slovakia, and eastern Austria.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire is long gone, dissolved after a war that the chaos inside its borders helped to start. But its influence lingers on, at least through football, perhaps the most lasting and important cultural entity there is. Today in Bordeaux, we'll see that influence once again.


Read our full coverage of Euro 2016 here