By Leo Linden
Five games into the Austrian Bundesliga season, a long-time top-flight stalwart is again trying to upend the status quo. The central European country has long been dominated by a few financially adept sides, but after a blazing start to the season, SK Sturm Graz is looking to break back into the winner's circle. It’s a place they have been before, and not too long ago either, but in order to repeat the task, they will need to put together a nearly perfect season.
Founded in 1908, Sturm Graz, nicknamed the Blackies for their traditional black-and-white striped jerseys, began play in their local state (Styria) leagues. In Styria, Sturm Graz was a force, with some accounts saying they won double-digit local league titles, though the numbers are up in the air. There was no way for the Blackies to progress out of the Southeastern regional leagues, but in a strange twist of fate, outside forces actually helped Sturm Graz progress up the ladder.
Unfortunately, those forces happened to be the Nazis, as after their capture of the country, they restructured the league across both Austria and Germany. The Blackies were still stuck in regional leagues, as the territory did not have a united top flight, but they were again competitive at the top level they could achieve. Their success allowed them to qualify for the Tschammer Pokal (the territory’s cup competition) in 1940, but they were bounced by a large 6-1 margin in the first round by eventual runners-up FC Nuremberg.
The fall of Nazi Germany led Sturm Graz back to the Austrian leagues, where there was now more order and a unified top flight. In 1949, the Blackies became the first team from outside of Vienna to compete in the competition. It was a major achievement, to say the least, but Sturm were way out of their depth level. By the mid-1950s, Graz had been relegated and were riding the line between the top two flights. However, after earning their third promotion to the top flight in 1968, Sturm Graz has retained their first-division status ever since.
Actually winning a league title was a whole different ballgame, however, as the Austrian league was heavily dominated by Austria Wien and Rapid Wien, who have combined for over half of all the titles in the competition's history dating back to the 1910s. Both clubs reside in the city of Vienna, which itself has an even stronger stranglehold on the league, with 69 of the 104 all-time winners coming from the capital city.
The Blackies would establish themselves as a competitor for the title in 1981 when the club missed out on the trophy by just a point, finishing second
However, the club’s history changed in a heartbeat with the signing of manager Ivica Osim in 1994. Osim quickly led Sturm Graz straight up the table, although his first season ended in heartbreak, with the club again finishing second and missing the title on goal differential. Another runners-up season followed in the 1995-96 campaign, but Sturm would get their hands on their first big trophy by taking home the Austrian Cup (a title they would go on to win three times in four years).
Finally, the club was finally able to put its league shortcomings to bed as the Blackies took home the title in 1998. That side was nothing short of dominant, winning the league by 19 points and securing the trophy with seven games to play. They successfully defended their crown the following season as well, though in less forceful fashion. The titles came with berths to the famed and then-recently rebranded Champions League, though the Blackies could never really get their wheels churning against Europe’s elite, twice going out in the group stage.
There were more close calls in 2000 and 2002 in which Sturm finished second, but Osim was unable to get the job done again as he had previously and left to coach in the J-League. Expectedly, Sturm fell off the table, but they were able to regain their composure by the turn of the decade.
It started with another Austrian Cup triumph in 2010, and that led to their third and most recent Bundesliga
Now, at the start of this year, Sturm are again trying to break into the elite squad in Austria, and they look to have a good chance to do so. Five games into the season, Sturm sit atop the table on a perfect 15 points, with wins over both still-prominent Vienna sides. But this weekend is even more important than most with a fixture against RB Salzburg — who sit in second — on the billing.
While the pair of Vienna sides dominated Austrian football though the turn of the century, the team to beat in the last decade has been Salzburg, winners of seven of the last 10 titles. Salzburg currently sit two points behind Sturm Graz in second and have also yet to lose, which makes this weekend’s battle all the more critical.
Should Sturm be able to pull off the home victory, they would open up an early five-point edge on Salzburg and would feel confident of their chances against anybody else in the table. The rest of the league is lagging behind, meaning that Sturm could turn this into a two-horse race early.
The Austrian Bundesliga still has plenty of time to play, with each of the 10 teams meeting each other four times over the course of the season. Regardless of outcome, Sturm Graz will have a great chance to again aim back up the table and potentially dethrone the current giants. If they could sneak another title under their belt, Sturm might just set their sights on becoming that giant someday.