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Brexit Or Remain: A Tale Of Empires, Borders and Renaissance

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Group F concluded last night, and it was thrilling. All talk has centred on Portugal and Ronaldo, and Iceland and their minnow’s tale reaching new heights. Talk is of England to come. But, there is an even more intriguing story here – one of two countries separated by a long gone empire, one of wars, of Total Football and, this morning, of Europe and of glory and despair.

Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

This tale is of decades in the footballing doldrums, yet hope of renaissance in a changing Europe. It is a tale of immigration and cross-border freedom, but also of an old Europe; a Europe in which nation states emerged and celebrated their individuality. It is a tale of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is a tale of Football.

Austria are out. Hungary are through. A goal either-way or a red card averted and it would have been different. These two countries used to be part of an empire. It was an empire that didn’t last long, fifty years or so. It was a forerunner of the European Union if you like, a multi-national state which was a bureaucratic monolith but which was liberal in its ethnic and cultural freedoms. This is not a lecture on ‘Brexit’ or ‘Remain’, but it is a lesson in football and its power.

Austrian football’s glory days? You would have to be a contemporary of its famous professor, Sigmund Freud, to remember the Wunderteam of the 1930s. The Austrian national team become a revered force in international football in the pre-war years.

Hungarian football’s glory days? It was 1953 when Puskas humbled England at their own game at Wembley. It was the year Queen Elizabeth II was crowned and Binns opened their new look five-storey store on Fawcett Street.

Indeed the 1930s and the 1950s were formative periods for international football. The ‘30s was a time filled with such political and cultural unrest that, by the end of the decade, the world had combusted into a maelstrom of horror. Football was an outlet and a symbol of national pride for the dominant nations posturing for war. During the 1950s, the world regrouped once the tremors of war had subsided. Then, new national identities were forged and football was again a mechanism to display the success of the mother land. National pride, which had once basked in the greatness of colonial empires, was shunted onto international football. Football always transcends the fears of the time, and during the pre and post-war years, international football took on a new global significance.

The Austrian Wunderteam peaked at the 1934 World Cup - favourites to win, they played ‘beautiful football’, but like all tragic tales the story ended in glorious failure. They lost to a single goal at the hands of Italy in dreadful weather conditions – the only goal of the game coming when the Austrian goalkeeper was pushed over the line.

The Austrian national side achieved little of note during the seventy years that followed – the team and its culture destroyed by annexation with Nazi Germany. From then on, Austrian football barely raised an eye brow – a high with a semi-final appearance in 1954 and a low with defeat to the amateurs of the Faroe Islands in 1992.

The millennium heralded the completion of Austrian decline, only qualifying for a major tournament thanks to being co-hosts in 2008. There they simply overdid the role of ‘genial host’, playing out the role of whipping-boys. Indeed mid-way through the tournament, 10,000 supporters signed a petition demanding the team withdraw to save further embarrassment. They have not fared much better this time around.

The ‘Magnificent Magyars’ of Hungary dominated the 1950s. This was not a domination of medals and trophies; it was more a revolution of how football would thereafter be played. If the Wunderteam had laid the foundations of Total Football, the Hungarians took it on in a flourish and introduced new tactical and coaching innovations that would define ‘modern football’.

The Hungarians had reached the World Cup final of 1954 but within two years, protests against oppressive Soviet rule had led to the Red Army killing thousands. Disillusioned with the severity of its occupying overlords, many Hungarians, including footballers, left for pastures new. Puskas himself even represented Spain at the 1962 World Cup.

Hungarian football continued to produce talented teams and talented individuals but they lingered in the shadow of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ and the fall of Communism. The Communist state had funded sporting programmes, but once these organisations were privatised, the money and with it, tournament qualification, largely dried up. The national side simply reveled in failure, their race to the bottom staggering. Only two Hungarian teams have featured in the Champions League in the last twenty years.

Something in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire had to be done. For their part, the Austrian Football Federation implemented various development programmes; in particular they began to tap into the country’s pool of immigrant communities.

Most of Austria’s players are now based in the Bundesliga or the Premier League. They lack top tournament experience, which has been plainly demonstrated, but they have a core of talented footballers. They are a team built around second generation immigrants. The colourful mixture has amongst them Greek, Serbian, Bosnian, Turkish and Hungarian roots. Bayern Munich’s David Alaba, who was supposed to be the star man, is born of Nigerian and Filipino parents. Somehow, this time around they simply failed to deliver as a team. Their time will come again.

In Hungary the principles are different, but the drive for football-improvement is the same. Hungarian sport has an unprecedented figurehead. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a huge football fan is leading the nation on an unparalleled investment programme in footballing infrastructure.  New stadiums and training facilities have been built from state funds, controversially so.

Indeed Orban is a controversial character. His government, faced with a tide of immigrants have introduced stringent border controls and attracted accusations of xenophobia.

Before the tournament there was talk of Austria being the dark horse. Dragovic, Hinteregger, Fuchs, Arnautovic, Alaba. All were supposed to star, some would be the subject of big money moves this summer.

As for the Hungarians, they weren’t given much hope. Their team is made up of veterans and promising youngsters. Observers hail their team spirit and their organisation. The young Adams - Nagy and Lang are worth looking out for. In Hungary they say it will take ten years to ‘fix’ their football. There is much investment in youth development. The Puskas Academy, the youth team of leading club Videoton, is a hub of promise and hailed as an exemplar.

A club like Sunderland would do well to watch developments in the old Austro-Hungarian region. These are football markets with potential, not quite yet fully explored.

The French leagues are plundered of talent each year by the Premier League. Each French footballer of note or promise, beyond those who are signed to mega-million club Paris St Germain, has offers from three or more English clubs each transfer window. The great Lamine Kone was linked with Swansea, Norwich and Newcastle before Sunderland nabbed him.

The Italian leagues have simply not been happy hunting grounds for Sunderland in recent years. Even some of their ‘good’ players have made no impact at the Stadium of Light – Giaccherini and Alvarez the most notable examples. The Spanish and German leagues tend to retain most of their talent. Sunderland must look to new sources.

We might just see an influx of Austrians and Hungarians into the Premier League in the next few years. Brexit or Remain? The result has been talked of in footballing terms extensively elsewhere. But, perhaps we will know just how likely these countries are to be a source of talent once the result is announced.