LASK Lucky on Return to Linz
LASK finally returned to Bundesliga action in Linz on a rainy Friday evening in February, as the club’s first team celebrated the official opening of the new Raiffeisen Arena in the hilly Froschberg area of Austria’s third largest city. Article below:
Kings of the Hill
Built on the site of the old Linzer Stadion - LASK’s recent home for several successful European campaigns - the new stadium was completed in around 500 days, confounding the expectations of many who thought that the project would run way beyond its planned time frame. After almost six and-a-half years playing outside of the city - approximately 25 minutes away on the tram in neighbouring Pasching - a homecoming to a conveniently-located stadium in Linz itself was a momentous occasion for a team who have risen up from financial peril and regional league football in a remarkable last decade, and the contrast with the old tin-shed feel of the approximately 6,000 capacity Pasching ground could hardly have been more stark.
The brand new arena still had a touch of “building site” feel to it as it was hastily given a final lick of paint literally minutes before its grand opening, but it was clear to see already that the steep grandstands and tightly packed tray shape of the venue - with one long stand built taller than the other three, and one behind the goal built as a single safe-standing tier - will be conducive to a fantastic atmosphere in its lifetime. No wonder the Austrian national team are exploring their options to fulfil fixtures here as soon as Spring 2023 if possible. It goes without saying that everything will take a bit of time to bed in, but it was easy to imagine that once the last few wires are connected, the pitch-side railings are fitted with spectator-friendly glass, and the turnstiles are warmed up by regular visitors, the place will be something for Austria to be proud of. After trying out a flashy bottom-filled pint and shuffling to our places in the media area, there was a brief violin interlude and a rendition of the Upper Austrian anthem on the pitch to warm up the crowd, before it was finally time to turn attentions to the football...
Game Time at the Gugl
LASK’s Women’s team had enjoyed a 4-1 victory in the “soft opening” of the stadium in front of a crowd of 3,500 (a domestic record for Women’s Football) a week prior, with captain Katharina Mayr scoring the very first goal at the club’s new home. For the men, it was a Bundesliga clash with Austria Lustenau to break the new place in, in front of around 12,000 fans. Unfortunately there was no sell-out, mostly thanks to a controversial decision to make tickets available only as part of a two-match package costing around €70, and on the field it took 35 minutes for the home team to have their first really good look at goal, as new signing Moses Usor blasted a shot at Lustenau keeper Domenik Schierl, before forcing him into a brilliant close range stop to keep out the resulting corner kick. Just before the break, an Usor cutback from the right was fired on target by the in-form Keito Nakamura, but once again Schierl was ready to parry it away. For their part, the visitors from Vorarlberg didn’t threaten the LASK goal in the first half, but they remained resolute at the back and utilised space well on the wings where possible. A goalless scoreline at the break was not exactly in the script, but it set things up for excitement in the second half.
Whilst the chance to score right in front of the packed fan-block had been missed in the first period, LASK still wanted to get the job done after the break and seal a spot in the top six “Championship Round” of the Austrian Bundesliga, something which would take the club a big step closer to bringing European football to the Raiffeisen Arena next season. Austria Lustenau came into this game off the back of a precious win last time out, and they were also very much up for the fight, battling for their own top six berth which would guarantee Bundesliga survival. With the opening exchanges of the second half, each attack at either end was snuffed out, and most fizzled with momentum-sapping free kicks going to the defenders.
The crowd began some sporadic chats of “Goiginger” around the hour mark, and indeed with 68 minutes played, Moses Usor and Ibrahim Mustapha were replaced by Thomas Goiginger and Marin Ljubicic to add some new impetus to the LASK attack, although Goiginger would pick up a knock twenty minutes later and be replaced himself by Florian Flecker. The turf, having looked pristine at the outset, appeared to be cutting up at this point, and several players lost their footing as good chances continued to prove hard to come by. A header-on in the box gave Lustenau their best chance late on, but it was nodded over the top from six yards out, yet the opening day dramatics were still to unfold...
A Housewarming Gift
As the rain began to pour down harder and the four minutes of added time were about half way done, we were sneaking off towards the exits to make the 15 minute dash down the hill towards the city’s main train station. One last glance towards the pitch saw Tom miss his step and take a slip himself, but it meant that we saw LASK push a final attack down the right, play a pass into the box which looped forwards towards the byline on the right of the area, with the newly introduced Flecker right underneath it… He too lost his footing and slid down on the soaking grass as the ball rolled out of play. However, referee Harald Lechner pointed to the spot, having felt that Flecker was clipped on his way down. To all in the ground it appeared that the LASK man had rather slid into the defender nearest to him, but a cursory VAR check confirmed that the home team would have a spot kick to seal an opening day home win. The Lustenau staff in the media area were (understandably) heated as we watched the contentious moment back on the TV screens before us, but Marin Ljubicic kept his cool to dink a Panenka penalty down the middle, and he and his team mates would wheel away into the corner to celebrate just seconds before the final whistle.
As wins come, this one was extremely fortunate, and the nature of the shocking penalty decision meant that it slightly dampened the big occasion for many, if the rain hadn’t done that already. For the hardcore LASK fans, as is the way with football, they won’t have cared a jot. The top six place was confirmed, the home win in the new Raiffeisen Arena was achieved one way or another from the boot of Marin Ljubicic, and for them, that’s all that will be remembered in the future. It is a shame that the stadium was so far from being full for the occasion, but perhaps with everything that happened, it was somehow right. Not officially a “soft opening” like the week before, but nonetheless a soft opening of sorts. If the game was a reflection of how an average match in the league will look, feel and sound for the fans in attendance, then the venue is already a brilliant addition to the Bundesliga, but when the bigger teams come to town, we can still hope for improvements in football, weather and atmosphere! For LASK's part, even a crowd of 12,000 is almost precisely double the usual number in Pasching, so financially they'll be looking to push onwards and upwards.
It’s only fair to finish by saying that some people in the city of Linz are unhappy that the old Linzer Stadium, a major public athletics hub, was removed for the Raiffeisen Arena which is LASK’s sole domain, but for those who support the team this ground could be the investment which changes the shape of the club’s future. Remembering the way the old arena on the Gugl would reverberate when packed full of fans in the city for European games makes us hungry to see such fixtures return to Linz soon, and when they do, there will be a modern and fitting new home awaiting them. - TM
LASK 1-0 Austria Lustenau (Ljubicic PK 90'+4)
Below: The winning penalty will be a big talking point in Austria's long-running refereeing-standards debate.