In the 1900’s, Vienna boasted of a lively Jewish community, which at that time was struggling to rid the city of the increasing anti-Semitism.
The developing community believed that football was the only way to free them from the cruelty that existed. An activist by the name of Max Nordau argued that the victims of anti-Semitism suffered from a condition which he referred to as “Jewish distress”. And in order to fight this condition, Jews not only had to reinvent their minds but their bodies as well.
And what better than forming a football club?
And so the story of Hakoah of Vienna or Hokoah Wien (translated to “Strength” in Hebrew) began in 1909. The club was formed with the help of a few Zionist intellectuals with players comprising of only Jews, with the exception of the managers. The team never hid its Zionist roots, with the stars of David being clearly visible on the kit.
One of the newspaper clippings, uncovered by Franklin Foer, the author behind “How Soccer Explains The World”, talks about a historic game in the 1924-25 season, in which an opposing player ran into Hakoah’s keeper – Alexander Fabian. As a result, Fabian ended up landing on his arm and injuring it to a point where he had to be replaced. Match day rules during the time prohibited substitutions in any circumstance. So Fabian returned to the game with his arm in a sling and swapped positions with a teammate taking up the right wing position. Just minutes after the injury and minutes away from the final whistle, on a counterattack, Fabian managed to score the winning goal that won Hakoah its first and only Austrian Championship title.
Hakoah was probably the first team in the world at the time, which crafted an extensive promotional marketing campaign at an international level with frequent trips outside Austria; similar to what one would see the clubs do in their off season today. The only difference was that, it was 1900’s and that they did not intend to generate sales or increase their fan base. Their goal was to spread Zionism.
In one such trip to England, Hakoah was the first continental team to beat an English club (West Ham United) on English soil.
There was, however, an unintended consequence of this marketing success. After experiencing the secular metropolis of cities like New York City wherein Zionism excelled, many players from the club immigrated in numbers, to New York City and some moved on to Palestine.
This along with the shut down of the Austrian league due to World War II resulted in the demise of the football club in 1938.
There had been many occasions since then to revive the association, which existed beyond the football team. However, the prominence of the club had diminished since WW II.
That did not result in the demise of what ‘Hakoah’ stood for. The celebrated name was embraced all around the world, from Tel Aviv to New York.
A moment of gratitude to my wife who introduced me to Franklin Foer’s thought provoking book which shaped this piece.