Don't blame German midfielder Michael Ballack for spoiling Austria's party. Some 70,000 Viennese had assembled in the Rathausplatz and the Heldenplatz, to watch the broadcast of Germany vs. Austria on a series of big TV screens; another 50,000 fans were at the stadium. Vienna had already gotten a whiff of excitement the night before when the city's large Turkish contingent took to the streets following Turkey's miracle 3-2 win over the Czech Republic. Anything seemed possible against the favored Germans.
On Monday night, a place in the quarterfinals was at stake, and much, much more as these historical rivals faced each other on the pitch. Austria hadn't beaten Germany in a major tournament in decades. And now, gifted a controversial late penalty against Poland resulting in a draw that had kept them alive, the Austrians had a chance to make some magic of their own and prove the team's doubters wrong. Before the tournament had even started, dissident Austrian fans had mocked the team's dreadful form by selling T-shirts that said, "Hosted by Losers."
The fan zone had closed long before match time, sending streams of disappointed supporters back toward the Kärntner Strasse, where they had paraded in team colors all afternoon, the Austrians in red, the Germans in white, faces painted, voices and beers raised, not necessarily in that order. The taunting was good- natured, even orderly, and watched by "undercover" cops in civilian clothes topped by vests clearly marked "polizei." Clearly, they weren't expecting a rough crowd, but honor was certainly on the line. "If we lose tonight I can't go the office for four weeks," said Steven Riederer, 31, an American-born German living in Vienna. By game time, downtown Vienna had turned into one gigantic, smoky, outdoor beer hall, and, an hour later, a pissoir of equal proportions.
If the Turks could do it, why not the co-host Austrians? One reason is that the Turks showed up to play. Not the Austrians. Germany almost put the game away in the opening minutes when Miroslav Klose walked in on goal and delivered a cross to Mario Gomez three yards in front. As Gomez swung his foot forward to score the sitter, the ball took a hop and he chipped it straight up in the air. It was comically bad finishing, and the kind of break that makes you think that things weren't going to go right for Germany. Austria pressed for a goal of their own in the 18th minute, and Erwin Hoffer blew an opportunity that told you this wasn't going to be an evening of miracles for Austria, either. The game soon settled into banality, with the Germans blocking one attempted cross after another, effectively stifling the Austrian attack, but not doing much themselves.
The highlight of the first half came when both coaches were ejected from the pitch for yapping at the fourth official and each other. German coach Joachim Low went straight into the stands to greet German chancellor Angela Merkel, presumably to apologize for his idiotic behavior.
Austria broke in on the German goal to start the second half but came away with nothing, as Hoffer practically waited until the German defense caught up. But in the 47th minute Ballack, the German captain, who had been none too impressive at that point, ended all hopes for Austria. He launched a stunning free kick, a stop-this-if you-can pile driver from outside the box that beat Austrian keeper Jürgen Macho to his left. In the Fan Zone, clusters of German fans celebrated, and those celebrants in front of me were greeted with a shower of beer, but that was the extent of the hooliganism. There simply wasn't much to get mad about. Austria wasn't good enough, and the fans knew it.