On this day, 18 June 2020, Austria would have played against The Netherlands at the European Championship. Both countries are forever connected by one man. He learned the game through the 1930’s “scheiberln” of the Wunderteam and in the 1960’s he made way for Dutch “totaalvoetbal”: Ernst Happel.
During Ernst Happel’s adult lifetime Austria and the Netherlands played each other twelve times. Ernst Happel was present at four of those matches. In the first, he played himself in midfield. It was a qualification game for the FIFA World Cup of 1958. In the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium, the result on the 25th of September 1957 was a 1 – 1 draw. Over two decades later, Happel was manager of the Dutch “Oranje”-a team which – just like Austria – had qualified for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. Warming up for the tournament, both teams played a friendly on May 20th in Vienna’s Prater Stadium (now called Ernst Happel stadium). Happel’s team defeated his fellow Austrians with 0 – 1.
Turning the tables turned in Argentina
They met again in Argentina. The stakes were higher: a place in the final. Austria had done very well in their group, ending first with Brazil in second place. The Dutch got in the next round by the skin of their teeth, scoring a late goal against Scotland and ending second on goal difference.
But on that 14th June in Cordoba, everything changed. In Vienna Happel had probably seen which were Austria’s weaknesses. Oranje already took the lead after six minutes. At half time it was 3 – 0. Austria didn’t stand a chance. The end result was 5 – 1. The Netherlands were heading for the final.
Their second place would be the last glory of the Dutch 1970s “Totaalvoetbal” period, which fire Happel had also started, by leading Feyenoord Rotterdam to become World Champions in 1970.
In the south of The Netherlands
During his final Austria vs The Netherlands, on May 27th 1992 in Sittard (Limburg, The Netherlands) Happel was managing the Austrian side. Six months before he had finally accepted managing his home country: it was his last chance of using his expertise and genius for the Austrian national team. Happel was fighting for his life. He had a liver disease. Deep in the Dutch south, his Austria lost 3 – 2: in the 89th minute, Austrian-naturalized Dutchman Frenk Schinkel – another man who ties both countries – scored for his new home country.
But knowing his time was limited, in spite of the loss, he was glad of his visit to the country in which he spent one-third of his managing career, in which he was so successful and which he considered being his second home. Although physically just a shadow of the man he used to be, Happel still shared the fire, love and wit he was known for, when he met some of his former Dutch players that day.
Less than half a year later Ernst Happel died, on the 14th November, two weeks before his 68th birthday. He was mourned all over the world. “A sloppy-genius footballer, a sensational coach and an extraordinary human” is what Heinz Prüller called him in the book he wrote with and about Happel. Ernst Happel was a man who left the football world another great legacy. But that’s another story – which we are going to tell later this year.
On this day Austria would have played against The Netherlands at Euro2020 tournament, which gives us a chance to go into the history of the European Nations Cup. A history full of remarkable stories and people. This is the story of Ernst Happel. It is a story about football innovation and bridging countries.