Klagen what? The most unlikely Euro venue ever

I would love to have been present when UEFA phoned up the Austrian FA to tell them that they had won the bid to co-host Euro 2008. “Hello Mr Fritz – Good news you’ve won the bid! Now tell us where will you be hosting the games? Vienna – a must, Salzburg – birthplace of Mozart and Sound of Music – good choice, Innsbruck – Seat of the Alps and good transport links and where else? Graz? Linz? Nope…We want to hold it in Klagenfurt…..” The simple answer to any question about Klagenfurt is “Why?”……Let’s get a couple of things straight. Klagenfurt is not unpleasant, its not dirty, dangerous or even quiet – it is simply in the middle of nowhere.

Klagenfurt, if you are trying to find it on the map, is in the south west corner of Austria, on the border of Slovenia and at the east end of Laker Worther (aka Worthersee). It is actually nearer to the Slovenian capital Llubjlana than any other Austrian city, and actually nearer to Zagreb in Croatia (two countries away) then Vienna. Even Ryanair only pay it lip-service in the obscure stakes by flying here three times a week. The town is small, but very functional. It has nice squares, lots of bars and the delights of the lake less than 3km from the centre…..They are the plus points. On the downside it will take you a day of traveling to reach the place, unless you are one of the 190 or so lucky to get a seat on Ryanair. Of course Llubjlana is only 28 miles away, but a lifetime by train (2 1/2 hours), Salzburg 3 hours and Vienna a whopping 5 hours! The reason for this is those pesky mountains that surround the town centre….

But investment was pumped into the town, and a shiny new stadium was planned to hold 3 games during Euro 2008. But what of the local team FC Kaerntan? Well they were blissfully happy in their 2,000 seater stadium in the south of the town and the need for 30,000 new stadium had passed them by some time ago. But this is Europe, and in Europe logic goes out of the window. So they agreed to move to the new stadium once the tournament in June 2008 was finished. In the summer of 2007, when completion of the stadium within sight, an amazing event happened. Mid-table Austria Supefund-Paching had just finished another season in mid-table in the Austrian Bundesliga when along came the regional president and suggested that the club move to the new Worthersee Stadium, a considerable distance from their nice modest stadium. Further more to give the club a new identity they would be known as Austria Karnten as of the 1st August 2007.

I was in town to watch the friendly international between Switzerland and Japan. The game was played as part of a four way tournament also featuring Chile and Austria, and came four days after the stadium had been inaugerated with a friendly between Austria and Japan in front of a sell out 30,000. Obviously expectations were low for a big turnout for the game, but we should never under estimate the power of the Japanese support for any sporting event.

The stadium is located around 2km south west of the small town centre, on one of the main roads out towards the lake. It is a truly amazing structure, and what the local NIMBY’s must have made of it is quite interesting. The plan is to take off the whole of the upper tier of the stadium in June 2009 and sell it to Graz and Linz for their stadiums – quite an innovative way to deal with the potential over capacity and I am sure the first in a long line of Ikea style stadiums that will start springing up around Europe.

Outside the stadium are plenty of bars and restaurants that cater for most fans and it was surprising to see so many fans at the stadium so early. Inside the stadium could have been anywhere in Europe – even Milton Keynes as little had been done to differentiate it from other new builds. However, with my press seat, a genuine pint of beer (none of this low alcohol stuff here) and a Wiener Schnitzel in hand I sat back to watch Switzerland demolish a poor Japanese side in the first half. Two goals in two minutes, one from a direct free kick and one a penalty seem to have ended the game after just 15 minutes, but the Japanese came straight back after the break and leaped into a 3-2 lead, thanks to two penalties and a dodgy looking offside call. The Japanese fans got so excited that they even forgot about starting a Mexican wave for at least 5 minutes…..With just 3 minutes left on the clock, Switzerland equalised as Arsenal’s Senderos thumped in a powerful header from a corner. But Japan weren’t beaten and in the final minute of the 3 added by the referee they scored a winner.

20,000 fans went home happy with both the stadium as well as the result. Outside everyone seemed to be walking around confusingly wondering how to get back into the town. But fear not – the orange bibbed stewards herded us all onto waiting buses and we all praised the Austrian efficiency that had seen us go from seat to bus in less than 10 minutes. We all slapped our thighs as we passed traffic jams and cold pedestrians traveling in the other direction – oh how we laughed….for around 10 minutes until the bus offloaded us as the Park and Ride in Europark – a small time amusement park on the banks of the Lake some 5 kilometres from the town centre. And of course, as Klagenfurt is so sleepy normal buses do not run past 7pm at night…..Therefore a walk that Randulph Fiennes would have been proud of ensued to get back for last orders at the hotel. So be warned of friendly natives in future!

About the Wörthersee Hypo Arena Stadion
Out of all of the stadiums constructed for Euro 2008, the new Wörthersee Stadium is the most eye-catching and innovative. It is built close to the lake of the same name, in one of the most beautiful areas of Austria. The complex will also include multi-sports facilities to include track and field arenas, fitness centre, as well as training facilities for all year round sports. It is hoped that the stadium will attract a number of high profile European clubs for their pre-season training camps, as is the fashion nowadays.

The new stadium has 32,000 seats, all offering fantastic views of the action. It has three stands with two tiers, with unusually the main stand being a lower one tier stand, although it does has a viewing gallery for VIPs. The roof is translucent, allowing plenty of light to enter into the arena. What is unique about this project is that after the tournament, parts of the stadium will be removed and transferred to other stadiums in Austria including Linz and Graz to increase their capacities. The final capacity of the stadium will be reduced to 12,000 – making it the first stadium of its kind to be built in this way. The concourse areas are wide and offer plenty of opportunities to get refreshments without missing the action. Also, unusually for a stadium all areas of the seating are accessed from this concourse, so that both the upper and lower tiers enter at the same turnstiles. The upper tiers offer a good view of the action, although the rake of the stand is very steep.

Who plays there?
As of the start of October 2007 the Wörthersee Stadion became home to SK Austria Kärnten, a club basically created out of the ashes of FC Superfund who had finished 6th in last season’s Bundesliga. As it only can be in European football, the need to have a top flight team was too much for the local council, who went on a shopping spree that Abramovich would be proud of, and simply bought a club and moved them hundreds of kilometres to Klagenfurt. So, as of September the club, complete with new name, kit and history will start a new era. The original FC Kärnten (known as FC Kelag Kärnten) based at the tiny Kurandtplatz stadium currently playing in the Red Zac 1st League (the 2nd tier of Austrian football) must be rubbing their heads in amazement. Their history has been pretty uneventful since their formation in 1920. They did reach the Austrian Bundesliga in the 1960’s, after promotion in 1965. They went on to stay in the top division for five seasons.

They returned again for periods during the 1970’s and 1980’s before finding some consistency in the early part of this century. After winning the 2nd division in 2001, the club went on to win the Austrian Super cup in May 2001 thus qualifying for the UEFA Cup for the first time although a 4-0 defeat to PAOK Salonika was not the best debut they could have made. However, the following season they made it through again after a 5th place finish in the Bundesliga. This time they managed a victory, beating the Latvians Metalurgs before a 2nd round defeat to Hapoel Tel Aviv. To cap another excellent season in 2003, they reached the UEFA Cup again, losing to Feyenoord in the 2nd round. In 2004 the team were relegated back to the 2nd division where they have remained since, although their 2006 3rd place finish did give the fans hope of a return to the top division right up until the last few games of the season. If they did manage to get promotion this season then expect them also to move to the new stadium. As part of the ramp up events for Euro 2008, the stadium hosted the national team for the first time in a four team tournament featuring Switzerland, Chile and Japan in September 2007.

How to get there
The stadium is located 3km from the shore of Lake Wörther, and 2km from the city centre. You can quite easily walk to the stadium, simply by following Siebenhügelstrasse out of the town centre. It should take no more than 20 minutes. Alternatively you can catch bus number 90 from platform 4 of the bus station in Heiligengeitsplatz, which run every 30 minutes and takes 10 minutes. A single ticket costs €1.70. After the game buses line up close to the stadium – however be warned – make sure you get on the right one otherwise you will end up at the park and ride close to Europark which is nowhere near the town centre.

Getting a ticket
Tickets to see games at the Hypo Arena will be easy to pick up. Over the past few seasons FC Kelag Kärnten have only managed to erage around 1,500 for their home matches, and so it should not be an issue at all turning up on the day of the game and gaining entry. If you do want to buy tickets in advance, then you can book online at http://www.fckaerten.com. Tickets will range in price from €19 for a seat in the main stand, to €16 in any other part of the stadium. At the Sportzentrum Fischl, the club charged €16 for a seat in the main stand, and €10 for a place on the terraces. Tickets for matches during Euro2008 sold out during the public ballot in March 2007.

Getting around
Public transport in Klagenfurt is very poor, and the car is still seen as the best way to get around town. Therefore expect ridiculous traffic jams at some points in the day.

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