With its strikingly modern new buildings and historical landmarks, Graz is Austria’s second largest city. First mentioned in a document dating from 1128 Graz sits at the intersection of a number of European cultures. Here Habsburg, Italian, Austrian, Baroque, Romanesque, Slavic, Magyar and Alpine-Germanic influences have combined over the centuries serving to create a very special city character. Throughout Graz, a number of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau sites can be seen and its unique old town has been given UNESCO World Heritage status.
Today the Styrian capital is said to be a world model eco-city and is regarded as being as important to Austria as the large cultural centres of Vienna and Salzburg. Innovative environmental projects are promoted in the city and its transport infrastructure is on par with anything else that Europe has to offer.
With its mix of historical tradition and new ideas, it is ironic that the two resident football clubs of Graz should also be known for a mix of qualities. But while Sturm Graz founded in 1909 continue to participate at the higher end of the Austrian Bundesliga the other city club Grazer AK are no longer at the top table of Austrian football.
Grazer AK – A New Start
Founded way back on 18th August 1902 as Grazer Athletik Sport Klub the club is better known in Austria as the traditional ‘GAK’. As local rivals, Sturm Graz was going from strength to strength GAK had formed a formidable side under former Bayern man Klaus Augenthaler. Between 2000 and 2004 GAK were a hugely successful side domestically.
Despite being Austrian Bundesliga winners in 2004 and beating Liverpool 1-0 in the Champions League qualifiers the footballing section of GAK was dissolved in 2012. Numerous years of financial turmoil took a toll and the club collapsed in sudden fashion.
For six months the club ceased to exist and only a sparse youth team continued to represent the club colours and history on a football pitch. Like many clubs however a phoenix club was set up by the fans who rallied around soon after the misfortune of bankruptcy. This new club was called Grazer AC and started its game operations from the bottom tier of Styrian football – the 6th tier a local league.
At first, the club was prohibited from using traditional club emblems and the traditional GAK title. Then, after a number of legal arguments came to a head, the new Grazer AC was legally considered to be a continuation of the original ‘GAK’ club at an extraordinary general meeting. Today the club still plays in the Oberliga Mitte-West and continues to use the traditional club colours, emblem and use the Grazer AthletikSport Klub title.
With the decline on the field and associated loss of sponsorship the club now finds itself far away from the city’s main sporting stadium the Merkur Arena (the one time Arnold Schwarzenegger-Stadium). Despite the fall from grace season ticket sales sit at around the 1,000 mark and GAK now plays its home matches at the sports centre Weinzödl. A rather more humble venue compared to its former home this stadium offers space for around 2,500 fans. The red seats and small compact surroundings continue to give the club some sense of identity as it seeks a way back.
By the late 1990’s Sturm Graz were an unlikely powerhouse within the Austrian game. Traditionally a domestic league that has been dominated by the Viennese clubs of Austria and Rapid, a Graz assault on Austrian football’s power base was launched from the superbly named Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium; a new municipal stadium that was built on the site of GAK’s old Liebenau Stadium.
Now run and owned by a joint public/private body the name of the stadium has changed over the years with the former Governor of California withdrawing the right for his name to be used. The ‘Stadion Graz Liebenau’ part of the stadium name was also removed in 2006. In the same year, it was renamed the UPC Arena after a naming rights issue was promoted. More recently with naming rights up for grabs in March 2016, the Austrian insurance company Merkur Versicherung secured the rights and the stadium was renamed the Merkur Arena.
Over the last 30 years, a number of club legends have brought success to the club and made a mark on its history. Noted managers have included Otto Baric and Ivica Osim while on the field the Italian veteran Giannini played a handful of games yet is fondly remembered. The most notable players of more recent times include the famous ‘Haas – Vastic – Reinmayr’ trio which helped Sturm to success both domestically and in Europe.
The traditional home of the team for many years was the Gruabn ground which held over 12,000 fans. With its narrow playing field and the close proximity of the fans to the players, Sturm Graz played its earliest European ties at this ground.
Sturm Graz naturally has a big rivalry with cross-town rivals Grazer AK and a merger of the clubs was fought off during the 1970’s such were the feelings for both sides. But with the demise of GAK to the local regional leagues, the fiercely contested Graz derby has gone from the calendar of Austrian football. These days the large Vienna clubs are noted as being the main rivals for Sturm at the top of the Austrian Bundesliga and these three continue to joust for top domestic honours.
At GAK calls have gone out for many absent fans of old to return and mobilise additional support for GAK. They are still regarded as the more traditional of the two Graz clubs.
But it would appear a period of stability is required at GAK before it can launch any assault into getting back into the top three leagues. The Graz derby is a great loss to the Austrian game and these days all football fans in Graz are mutually noted for a firm opposition to the new powerhouse of the Austrian game Red Bull Salzburg.
See images from Graz here