Sun, Jun 08, 2008 - Page 18 News List

Thousands of Croatia fans descend on Vienna

AFP , VIENNA

A joke in Vienna says that three countries will play home games in Austria during Euro 2008 — Austria, Croatia and Turkey — and two of these have a reputation as violent fans. But with Turkey playing all their group stage matches in Switzerland, the main concern is the supporters from the Balkans.

Over 56,000 Croatian nationals live in Austria, including 16,500 in the capital, this year’s official statistics show, and tens of thousands more are expected to travel to join family and friends in Austria during the championship. In Vienna’s 16th district, Ottakringerstrasse is known as “Balkan street.”

Bars and restaurants along it are decorated with the distinctive red and white checkerboard pattern of Croatia and Balkan music can be heard playing on the stereos.

Menus that would not be out of place in Zagreb list exotic and unpronounceable dishes and sports shops prominently display the Croatian team shirt alongside other national strips. In one local video rental shop, every customer who enters speaks to the man behind the cash register, Robert Dragicevic, in their native language.

“Everybody here speaks Croatian, a lot of people from former Yugoslavia live in the area,” he said, still using broken German after 17 years in the country.

Dragicevic, 30, who also has a stock of baseball caps, coffee mugs and key chains in the Croatian colors for sale, said he is a big soccer fan.

But he is aware of his fellow supporters’ reputation.

“When Croatia wins, we celebrate. But when Croatia loses, then there are problems, quarreling, arguing, fighting with other countries,” he said.

Last July, fans from Rapid Vienna and Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb clashed in Kapfenberg, some 100km south west of Vienna, after a theoretically friendly match, injuring some 30 police officers in the process.

“People who live here will certainly not cause any problems, but those who come from ‘down there’ or other countries, you never know,” said Robert Benussi, the Croatian manager of Cafe Styxx, a trendy bar on Ottakringerstrasse already decked out for the Euro, with giant screens and flags from each country, but most prominently Croatia.

“If we win, especially the first game against Austria, we’ll definitely party a lot, there will be lots of laughing, but also lots of alcohol in the bloodstream,” he said.

The neighborhood, with its large immigrant population, including Poles, Turks and Serbs, has a bad reputation and the cafe will hire extra security on match days, “not to dampen the atmosphere and kick people out, but to keep things under control.”

Vienna’s police chief Gerhard Puerstl said on Friday they would “keep an eye” on potential trouble spots, like Ottakringerstrasse, during today’s Austria-Croatia game in Vienna, and added that the police were ready to intervene if necessary. An extra 1,800 officers will be on call in the capital on match days and the City of Vienna has set up a telephone hotline in connection with Croatian groups to provide assistance to visitors and locals. If any trouble arises, the City will then inform the police, Walter Hladik, Vienna police spokesman for the Euro, said.

But he added the only problems would probably be Croatian fans descending into the streets and disrupting traffic.

“People will call the police complaining about the noise, asking why we’re not doing anything, but nobody gets injured,” he said.

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