“You see, the thing about football is that it is not about football.” – Mr. Nutt in Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals.
Part I – Introductions
It was a Thursday afternoon in March, and I was driving from the grocery store back to the apartment, having just gotten the week’s groceries with my wife, who was also off work. It was a lovely (if a bit chilly) day, with blue skies and plenty of sunshine. I felt the familiar buzz of my phone that signaled an email. I don’t use my phone when driving, so I handed it over to my wife to see what it was. The first word was “Congratulations!”
I had just received a massive fellowship to complete my dissertation research in Austria. I had been to Austria many times before, but this would be the longest time I’d ever spent abroad – nine months of uninterrupted research time.
Over the course of the next few months, I began preparing everything to make the trip. I gathered all the necessary documents, emailed all the necessary people, and read all the necessary literature. I decided that this trip I would try to integrate as fully as possible. I would have an Austrian roommate, live outside the city center, speak German as much as possible, and absorb the Austrian culture. And for me, one of the most important parts of any culture is sport.
I have always been a fan of sports, though much more casually than many. I’ve never been the one who recall all of the stats at the drop of a hat, but I have an interest in the way sports make us feel. I do appreciate statistics, and I adore tactics, but for me sports have always been about the culture surrounding them. The sport molds the culture, but the culture also molds the sport. As someone who grew up in Alabama and attended Auburn University, this was most evident in my life through college football. However, globally, this is most evident through that other kind of football – that to which we here in the US profanely refer as “soccer,” a diminutive of the sport’s official name, Association Football.
So, in my preparation for my trip, I began researching the culture of soccer in Austria… And I realized just how little I know about Austrian soccer. I know Rapid Wien and Red Bull Salzburg, but other than that, I couldn’t name another Austrian team. I didn’t know how many teams were in the league, or, to be honest, what the league was called! I knew it was called the Bundesliga, but this made me doubt everything – “Is it really just the Bundesliga? How is that not confused with Germany? Wait, it’s called the Tipp3 Bundesliga? Oh, no, that’s what it was called… Now it’s the Tipico Bundesliga? Wait, the second league is called something different? Oh good lord…”
I quickly decided that this was something to be chewed and digested slowly – not something I could inject straight to my veins. It would take time. It would take patience. And it would take something at which I am actually quite good – research.
So, I decided that I would document this process for you in this series. I’m calling it “Fisch auf dem Trockenen,” which is the German translation of “Fish out of water.” Throughout this series, I’m going to be looking at who the teams are, what are their histories, how they play in the league, who their supporters are, what their chants are, etc. I’m also going to be tracking the progress of the table throughout the season. Though the season begins in just a few weeks, I will be in Austria for the bulk of it. My research (my actual, PhD research, not just my Bundesliga research) is going to take me traveling around to several Austrian cities, so I will be able to get multiple perspectives on the season and the different local teams in the league. I’ll be in the thick of it all, asking questions, watching games with the locals, and hopefully visiting a couple of stadiums.
I’m sure I’ll get some things wrong. I’m sure I’ll misunderstand a lot. But that’s kind of the point. I’m a “Fish out of water.” Hopefully you find all this interesting despite this. If not, then it will at least give me something fun to do throughout my time in Austria!
Next time, I’ll doing a little pre-season write-up of the different teams in the first league. And talk a little about the history of the league itself – which, like most sports leagues, tends to be intertwined with the history of Austria itself, for good or ill.
Update: You can continue this series with Part II: The League.