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Austrians fear Euro 2008 humiliation

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, Vienna

A group of Austrian football lovers is calling on their national team to withdraw from the European Championship finals in Austria and Switzerland next week. They say Austria is simply not good enough to take part.

Austria's football team
Some Austrians are embarrassed by their national team

There is football fever in Austria as the country gears up for Euro 2008.

Austria will be taking part in the tournament for the first time ever, facing Croatia and Germany in the group stages.

As one of the hosts of the tournament, along with Switzerland, the Austrian team qualified automatically.

But their recent record is dismal.

They have slipped to 102nd place in the Fifa world rankings, between Algeria and Tanzania.

Some football lovers here think Austria don't deserve a place in Euro 2008 - that they are just embarrassing.

An online petition called Oesterreich zeigt Rueckgrat (Austria - show some backbone) demands that Austria withdraw from the tournament.

Austria is a little country but we were better in the past. There is no passion any more
Michael Kriess
Petition organiser

The petition, in English and German, says Austrian football is an insult to the beautiful game.

It appeals to football fans who "love this great sport for the sheer beauty of it" but who "fall into a dismal state of depression when watching a match featuring the Austrian national football team".

And it urges the Austrian Football Association "to voluntarily resign from participating in the Euro 2008".

'Lowest point'

One of the organisers, Michael Kriess, is the son of a well-known Austrian footballer. He says he is taking action for sheer love of the game.

"As an Austrian fan I am used to defeat and humiliation," he said.

Logo of Osterreich zeigt Ruckgrat
Oesterreich zeigt Rueckgrat has been fined for bastardising Austria's emblem

"But now we are at the lowest point we ever were. We are just asking why we are here, who is to blame for that and what has been happening in Austrian football over the last five years?"

Ten thousand people have signed the petition so far. Michael Kriess says they all know there's no chance that their demand will be met - but they want to shake things up in the world of Austrian football.

"Austria is a little country but we were better in the past," he said. "There is no passion any more."

He puts the blame on the managers and the Austrian Football Association.

"The problem is that we have got all our team players playing in the Austrian league, which is internationally not competitive.

"And club teams prevent the young players from leaving the country by paying them simply too well. It can't go on like this.'

Shortly after the petition came out, Austria's football association told the BBC it was not commenting on the matter.

But the authorities have not taken kindly to Mr Kreiss' initiative. He has been fined 1,500 euros (1,177; $2,334) for bastardising the country's football logo - obscuring the famous eagle's head with a football.

"One cannot accept this. This is the first time this law has been used since the constitution came in after the war. This is not democracy," says Mr Kreiss, who is appealing against the verdict.

National pride

SK Rapid is Austria's most successful football team, with several members in the national squad. Speaking after a training session at the team's Vienna stadium, Helge Payer, a goalkeeper in the national side, said there was all to play for at Euro 2008.

"We are very confident, we are looking forward to Euro 2008 and we want to surprise," he said.

And the team does have the support of many Austrian fans.

In fact one man has even set up a rival petition, called "Pro-National Team for Austria".

It is an appeal to the Austrian Football Association not to withdraw from the tournament.

"We stand fully behind our team in good times and in bad times," it says.

Some fans are hoping Euro 2008 will be the turning point for Austrian football. They think the team, buoyed up by the home crowds, could reach the quarter-finals.

Others are less ambitious. They just don't want to be embarrassed.

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