Ever since the emergence of football as a worldwide spectacle, the measurements by which we categorise the legends of the game have appeared in many forms. Many would agree that it is the brilliance of the individual that stands out above all, but success in football, more often than not, is born out of the collective significance of an eleven that can utilise its strengths most effectively.
Typically, it is those with the ability to build a comfort zone for their teammates in a way that maximises their performance who prosper best. Players that great teams could not succeed without that are often under-appreciated throughout their career – like Herbert Prohaska, a player adored by his native supporters who recognised him as one of Austria’s greatest ever players, but recognised as much as ‘Schneckerl‘ for his curly hair by the wider footballing world. This is the story of his extraordinary career.
Born in Vienna in 1955, Prohaska was introduced to football at the age of nine. He learned his trade under the tutelage of his father who coached him for six years through the youth ranks of local team Vorwarts XI. He spent two years at SC Ostbahn, also based in Vienna, before getting his big move to Austria Vienna in 1972. After making his debut aged sixteen, the midfielder enjoyed a very successful eight-year spell with Die Veilchen, scoring 62 times over 259 matches and winning four league titles and three domestic cups along the way.
Following two successful development seasons, the teenager really started to cement his place in the side during the 1974/75 season and earned a first international cap in November of that year. At just 19 years of age Prohaska was playing 34 times in the Bundesliga and scoring nine goals, showing real signs of what he would be capable of. Schneckerl‘s emergence as a first-team regular for Austria Vienna coincided with a tough period for the national team who missed out on a fourth consecutive World Cup qualification and were in desperate need of change. In Prohaska, Austrian football was given a new lease of life and the potential of an exciting future.
As the 1978 World Cup approached, Prohaska – now with more than 20 caps under his belt – was an important part of Helmut Senekowitsch’s plans heading into a crucial qualifying match against Turkey. This was the day 22-year-old Herbert Prohaska became a national hero. The match was labelled the “Spitz of Izmir” after the twinkle-toed midfielder scored a decisive yet uncharacteristic toe-poke (known as “Sau-Spitz” in German) in a 1-0 victory to secure Austria’s World Cup qualification for the first time in 20 years.
Six months on and Prohaska was heading to the World Cup brimming with confidence on the back of three consecutive silverware-winning seasons in Austria. Despite winning their first two matches in Argentina, the Austrians could only reach the second group stage before being knocked out. Nevertheless, for their performance in 1978 in one particular game, they returned home as history makers.
Sitting rock bottom of their Second Round group and out of contention, the Austrians headed into their final fixture with closest rivals West Germany who themselves needed at least a draw from the fixture to advance. In Cordoba the sides played out a classic encounter with the Austrians pulling out a miraculous result.
The 3-2 victory not only knocked their rivals out of a World Cup, it ended a 47-year and 12-match run without a win over Germany. “The Miracle of Cordoba” marks one of Austria’s finest sporting moments as the names of Prohaska and his teammates became engraved in Austrian football folklore.
Over the next couple of years Prohaska’s game developed exponentially and he was starting to play with a real swagger. His powerful dribbling and intricate passing ability saw him cut through teams with ease and it started to become apparent that he was outgrowing Austrian football. In the summer of 1980, Serie A opened its doors to foreign players once more and when Italian champions Inter Milan came calling with the promise of European Cup football, Prohaska could not refuse.
Despite being the only non-Italian in Inter’s squad for 14 years, Prohaska wasted no time in finding his feet at the San Siro. In his debut season he made 40 appearances for the Nerazzurri, 35 of those coming consecutively. The midfield maestro helped Inter to a fourth-place finish in the league partnered with an impressive European Cup run. A string of three league defeats in March to Napoli, Fiorentina and Roma followed by a narrow 2-1 aggregate European Cup semi-final defeat to Real Madrid brought a disappointing conclusion to a season that could have ended so differently.
After losing 2-0 at the Bernabéu in the first leg, Prohaska was presented with a golden opportunity to turn the tie on its head just two minutes into the return fixture. Gasps of disbelief echoed around the San Siro as the Austrian’s beautifully guided header bounced back off the inside of the post and from that point on, Real Madrid’s resolute defending was enough to nullify Inter’s threat and see them scrape through by a single goal. Despite not having any trophies to show for it, Prohaska’s strong performances week in and week out were a very promising sign of things to come.
He once again played a key role in his second season at Inter and the club’s run in the Coppa Italia, but their inconsistency in the league led to a mediocre fifth-placed finish. Prohaska and co. did, however, have something to celebrate from that season’s campaign. Inter headed into matchday 21 just four points adrift of the leaders Fiorentina and Juventus. Their opponents? Relegation-threatened AC Milan, who sat second from bottom and in desperate need of a result to kickstart their escape attempts.
Ten minutes in, Prohaska found himself in the right place at the right time six yards from goal to give Inter a crucial lead. Seven minutes later, the Austrian was on the score sheet once more – but at the wrong end this time. Robert Antonelli’s free-kick for the Rossoneri didn’t look to be troubling the Inter goal until it took an almighty deflection off the hapless Prohaska and found the back of the net. Bersellini’s men went on to grab a crucial victory anyway to send Milan further into disarray.
AC Milan’s previous demotion was sanctioned by the Italian Football Federation due to a betting scandal and Inter’s vice president at the time, Peppino Prisco, famously said: “Milan ended up in Serie B twice: the first time they had to pay for it, the second they got a free ride.” Prohaska may not have won a league title in Milan, but he will forever be remembered for his part in that famous Derby della Madonnina.
The time had come for him to move on from Inter after two impressive seasons in blue and black, but first, he had the not minor distraction of the 1982 World Cup with Austria, anchored by ‘Schneckerl’ once more, looking to improve upon their second-round exit in 1978.
Boasting their greatest ever talent pool, joint managers Felix Latzke and Georg Schmidt were determined to make their mark – though little did anyone know that their desire to succeed would lead to such a poisonous outcome. The Austrians made a magnificent start in Spain, winning both of their opening fixtures against Algeria and Chile without conceding a goal. Big rivals West Germany found themselves with a two-point deficit to Austria and Algeria following the latter’s victory over Chile in their final group game the day before. The Germans needed a win to progress with a margin of one or two goals, permutations which would allow both teams to advance and send Algeria home.
Pezzey, Krankl, Prohaska and the rest all had a chance to rewrite another West Germany-focused chapter in Austrian football history four years on from ‘the Miracle of Cordoba’, only this time it was their place in the competition at stake and their opportunity to send their noisy neighbours and tournament favourites home. Unfortunately the Austrian fans weren’t given the fairy tale result they had dreamt of, far from it. Far even from the looming nightmare of a 3-0 defeat and devastating exit at the hands of a rival.
Whilst there is no concrete evidence to suggest the two teams systematically played out a 1-0 West German win, a game which brought just three shots (all unsurprisingly off-target) and eight tackles made throughout the entire second half rightly earned the title of the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ title and the backlash against both nations was fierce. Nevertheless, the pair advanced to the second group stage where Austria could only manage one point from their two matches against France and Northern Ireland to fall short at the second hurdle once again. Meanwhile, West Germany overcame their early tournament obstacles and brushed aside the deluge of disdain that came their way to reach the final. Much to the relief of many Austrians, including Prohaska, his Italian Serie A associates were on hand to spoil the party.
A controversial summer out of the way for the 27-year-old and it was back to business in Italy – and Roma. Despite arguably boasting Italian football’s best team at the time, a string of injuries led to a disappointing third-placed finish for Roma the previous season. The Giallorossi were eager to strengthen to solve a lack of depth and get the best out of their key players. Even with their midfield mastery of Carlo Ancelotti, Falcão and Agostino Di Bartolomei, manager Nils Liedholm was in need of a certain midfield general to take some weight off their shoulders and, with the provision enabling clubs to have a second foreign player, Prohaska proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle.
Typically Prohaska threw himself into action in that typical style that Serie A fans had become accustomed to. Roma took an early lead at the top of the table with six wins from their opening eight fixtures and never looked back from then on. The Austrian started all of the 29 matches available from his debut and was on the losing side just four times. He wasn’t just a missing piece of the puzzle, far from it – a more accurate description would be a bridge across lava covering all of the pitch’s middle third. Defensively Roma was comfortable in the knowledge that they had a simple but effective route up the pitch through Prohaska. On top of that, he provided freedom for his more forward-thinking teammates who could rely on him to do their defensive work and offer penetrative supply too.
The plaudits, of course, went to other members in the team who were more visually and statistically productive, but Prohaska was a player sometimes noticed more when absent than when playing – Roma won just one of their four Serie A matches without the 27-year-old, a pattern that became more obvious in the years that surrounded his departure.
In his only season in the capital Prohaska helped his side to a first league triumph for 41 years, indeed their only Serie A title post-World War II in the 20th century. The following season Liedholm’s men went from strength to strength without their midfield general, advancing all the way to a European Cup final, finishing second in Serie A and winning the Italian Cup, and in a period of undeniable dominance in Italy, the Austrian could well have been the difference in winning all three.
Nevertheless Roma’s loss was Austria Vienna’s monumental gain as the Viennese giants welcomed home a national hero ready to add to his hometown legacy. And, as you’d expect, it didn’t take long for him to do so. Prohaska’s first campaign back home was special with everything he could ever have hoped for and more. If leading the club to a first league title in three years after a dramatic battle with city rivals Rapid Vienna wasn’t exciting enough, a seemingly preordained UEFA Cup trip to the San Siro to face an old friend certainly was.
His former Inter teammates were eager to reverse a one-goal deficit from the first-leg at the Franz Horr Stadium. After 70 minutes of resolute defending, the Austrian side’s hard work looked to have been for nothing when Alessandro Altobelli converted an easy chance. Sighs of relief became disbelief as Vienna watched the ball trickle agonisingly wide of their net, only to go up the other end less than a minute later and put the game to bed.
In an unforgettable first season back in Austria, Prohaska had returned with the hopes of helping his hometown club become a force to be reckoned with. Defeating a former club was definitely the right way to go about doing that, even if Spurs eliminated them in the following round.
In the two years that followed Austria Vienna asserted its national dominance with the main man back in the fold. Prohaska was at the forefront of their success, scoring 19 times in all competitions and taking his tally to four consecutive league titles. Unfortunately he couldn’t carry his side further than the European Cup quarter-finals as they fell victim to another English opponent in eventual 1984/85 finalists Liverpool.
This period of dominance Die Veilchen sustained throughout Prohaska’s first three years back started to fade soon after as the midfield maestro neared the end of his illustrious career. Following his retirement in 1989, Prohaska received much appreciation and admiration for an astounding and sometimes understated career.
At the UEFA Jubilee Awards in 2004 Prohaska was declared Austria’s Footballer of the Century. Upon receiving this honour he said: “I had dreamt about becoming a world champion with Austria or winning a European trophy with FK Austria, but I never dreamt about winning this vote,” which epitomises his drive to improve every team he was involved in even if it came – which it often did – at the expense of individual exposure. Amidst the sea of enormous egos that has long remained a big part of the game, Prohaska was a humble, heroic exception.