Austria and Switzerland count down to Euro football feast

February 26th, 2008 - 12:11 pm ICT by admin  

Vienna/Geneva, Feb 26 (DPA) Austria and Switzerland hope to make up off the pitch for what could be disappointment on the playing field for the Euro 2008 co-hosts. Preparations for the June 7-29 tournament - the biggest sports event in decades for both alpine countries - are well on track, but it will take some decent showings from the teams as well to generate enthusiasm.

“The Euro is the opportunity of a century for Austria,” the nation’s Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer said.

But it is beyond Gusenbauer’s control whether Austria is steering towards a fun summer football party or chaos, humiliation and an early exit for of its squad - a question still largely unanswered 100 days before the tournament opener.

“Preparations are on track,” organisers said of the nation’s biggest sports event since the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck.

Austria’s four stadiums in Vienna, Salzburg, Klagenfurt and Innsbruck - extended and renovated for 150 million euros ($222 million) - are finished and first tests-runs during international friendlies went off without major glitches.

Security concepts are coordinated, fan zones organised, culture side-events promoted and logistics regarding opening hours and transport in place. Improvements have been promised for Vienna’s Ernst-Happel-Stadium, where public transport collapsed after the Austria-Germany friendly in February.

Now the only thing missing is the fans.

The one-month football frenzy will be a major boom for local tourism, organisers said, with the lion’s share of the 380 million euros likely to be generated going to tourism-related industries.

A likely assumption - if organisers are to be believed, an accumulative audience of eight billion people is expected to watch Euro on TV - providing a major marketing platform for hosts Austria and Switzerland.

Enthusiasm is still slow to materialise, despite gargantuan marketing efforts. Football traditionally plays a smaller role in Austrian sports awareness, dwarfed by the dominance of winter sports.

The less-than-inspiring performance of the national team adds to the lacklustre feeling.

“The atmosphere could be a lot better,” Austrian football legend Hans Krankl admitted.

Nonetheless, the football horizon has a silver lining. In its latest friendly against Germany, Austria may have lost 3-0, but at least in the first half the hosts were able to hold their mighty, star-studded neighbour in check.

That flicker of life and a show of a fighting spirit gave hope to Austrian fans that their team may not be in for as big a humiliation as feared previously - even though they will face Germany again, as well as Croatia and Poland in group B.

The situation in Switzerland is similar as the team of coach Koebi Kuhn appears not as strong as during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, beaten in four out of five of the last friendlies.

The tournament opener against the Czech Republic on June 7 in Basel could define the Swiss fate, with fancied Portugal and Turkey also in group A.

Over a million visitors are expected to travel to the games at the four Swiss venues of Basel, Geneva, Zurich and Berne, with the tourism authority looking to exploit a golden marketing opportunity.

Basel-based communications expert Dan Wiener has been called up to provide training for 50,000 hosts and hostesses; from waitresses and ticket inspectors to airport employees and police.

Wiener agrees with the tourist authority that attitude counts: “They know that if somebody felt at ease and was happy about Euro 2008, they’ll be likely to come back.”

Celebrated Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter has been lighting up the skies and Switzerland’s principal monuments under the slogan Football Makes Switzerland Sparkle. Zurich City Hall and the Zytgloggeturm (clock tower) in Berne have already received the treatment as Hofstetter works his way round the 26 cantons.

The excitement may be mounting but so is the tension as the Swiss prepare a major policing operation to deny potential troublemakers any opportunity to disrupt the tournament.

But Swiss security chief Martin Jaeggi also made it clear the security forces will operate at arm’s length. Organisers have stressed the event should be a “feast and not a fortress”.

Switzerland also has another objective as sports minister Samuel Schmid wants to use “the momentum and euphoria” of the football tournament to encourage fitness in a country where one in five school children is now overweight.

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