Euro 2008 fever sweeps Austria, Switzerland
Austria's biggest football fan is larger than life and out of this world: He's got the body of a man, the head of a jackal - and the red jersey and white shorts of the national team.
"Awesome, isn't he?" said Hans Neuburger, gazing up at the 7.5-meter (24.5-foot) statue of Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife.
Anubis, who's been towering over central Vienna lately as part of an exhibition of the pharaohs' treasures, isn't usually dressed up like that. But then neither is the Austrian capital, awash in national flags and soccer ball motifs.
The European Championship starts on Saturday, and co-hosts Austria and Switzerland are in the unmistakable throes of football fever. Bakers are kneading loaves into the size and shape of footballs. Flags of the two alpine countries and the 14 other competing nations are fluttering from car antennas. Leaflets advertising concerts and nightclubs have been reprinted to resemble red cards and yellow cards, and face paints are outselling mascara at boutiques. Whimsy abounds, ranging from the freshly painted boot studs adorning the feet of Greek and Roman figurines on Vienna's Karlsplatz to the giant likeness of a Swiss player that a farmer outside Geneva fashioned from huge hay bales.
"Expect Emotions" is the slogan of the three-week tournament, and there's no shortage of those especially in Austria, where people still reeling from a soul-sapping spring are seeking solace in the beautiful game.
Police allegations that Josef Fritzl imprisoned his daughter in a windowless underground cell for 24 years and fathered seven children with her, including three who never saw the light of day until they were freed in April, caused a scandal that shamed the nation. Euro 2008 an event that's second only to the World Cup across this football-obsessed continent will provide a welcome opportunity for some desperately needed merrymaking. "After all we've been through, all I want to do is enjoy a few beers with my friends and scream at the top of my lungs: 'Go Austria!"' said 22-year-old university student Franz Lutz as he strolled past Vienna's main "Fan Zone" being set up on the downtown Heldenplatz, or Heroes' Square.
Tickets sold out months ago, so organizers are bracing for a total of 4 million fans double the normal population of Vienna to jam that square alone and watch the action on a giant screen. They've stockpiled 3 million pints of beer, 60 tons of cold cuts, 600,000 rolls, 600,000 links of sausage and enough mineral water and soft drinks to submerge Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium, where the June 29 final will be played.
Security is being tightened in all eight Swiss and Austrian venue cities, where tens of thousands of police officers will be deployed, border guards will try to intercept known hooligans and military jets will patrol the skies.
Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer promised a "friendly and harmonious atmosphere," and counterterrorism officials played down the risk of trouble.
"We are taking every warning and all information very, very seriously. But at this stage, we have no indication that there will be threats, and that means the games are safe," said police Brig. Konrad Kogler.
National pride is on display, but that's to be expected. In Vienna, billboards for an online betting company poke fun at the various arch-rivalries. "Life is a game!" they proclaim next to a photo of a French-kissing couple her face painted with Austria's flag, his with Germany's.
In Bern, an information center in the shape of a giant football has been constructed at the central train station, and a massive sign on the main bridge leading into the Swiss capital's old town is counting down the days, hours and minutes until Saturday. "Now it feels like Euro 2008 is coming," said Yves Verstaat, a shop owner whose tournament T-shirts and trinkets are selling briskly.
In ethnic neighborhoods of Geneva, Italian flags are being proudly flown from cars and balconies, and a father pedaling a bicycle was seen towing a child carrier festooned with a football in Portugal's national colors.
How long until the euphoria abates is anyone's guess. Austria and Switzerland are unlikely to have qualified for the tournament if they hadn't been selected as hosts, and neither nation is expected to make it past the quarterfinals if they reach that stage at all. But hometown passions for the two underdogs run deep. A mock victory video that was recently posted on YouTube captured the mood perfectly: It celebrated the Austrians' "sensational win" over the Netherlands.
"I wish," said Lutz, the collegiate fan. "But you never know. And if it actually happened, wouldn't that be fantastic?"
Associated Press Writer Alexander G. Higgins in Geneva contributed to this story.