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 their strengths to a tee.
Typically, it is those with the ability to build a comfort zone for their teammates in a way that maximises their performance. Those that many great clubs could not succeed without that are underappreciated throughout their career. Like many players of his nature, Herbert Prohaska was adored by his native supporters as one of Austria’s greatest ever players, but renowned as ‘Schneckerl‘ for his curly hair more than anything by the world of football. This is the story of his extraordinary career.
Born in Vienna in 1955, Prohaska was introduced to football by his father 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 then spent two years at SC Ostbahn XI who were also based in Vienna before getting his big move to Austria Vienna in 1972. The midfielder had a very successful eight-year spell with Die Veilchen, after making his debut aged 16, he scored 62 times over 259 matches, winning four league titles and three cups along the way.
After two successful seasons of development, the teenager really started to cement his place in the side during the 1974/75 season and earned himself his first international cap in November 1974. At 19 years of age, Prohaska played 34 times in the league, scoring nine goals and showing real signs of what he was 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 their fourth consecutive World Cup and were in desperate need of change. In Prohaska, Austrian football was given a new lease of life and an exciting future on the horizon.
As the 1978 World Cup approached, Prohaska was an important part of Helmut Senekowitsch’s plans with more than 20 caps under his belt heading into a crucial qualifying match against Turkey. This was the day 22-year-old Herbert Prohaska became a national hero. The match was deemed 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 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 game in particular, they returned home as history makers.
Austria sat rock bottom of their group on zero points heading into their final fixture already out of contention but with everything still to play for. Their opponents, West Germany were in third on two points with a victory guaranteeing them a third-place play-off final at least. In Cordoba, the two teams played out a classic encounter in which the Austrians pulled out a simply miraculous result.
The 3-2 victory not only knocked their rivals out of a World Cup, it ended a 47-year, 12-match period 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 couple of years that followed, Prohaska started to possess a real swagger on the ball on rightly so. His powerful dribbling style and intricate passing ability saw him cut through teams with ease as it soon became apparent that he had outgrown Austrian football. In the summer of 1980, the 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 started 35 consecutive matches in all competitions, eventually racking up 40 appearances for the Nerazzurri.
The midfield maestro helped Inter to a fourth-place finish in the league partnered by an impressive European Cup run. A string of three straight league defeats in March followed by a narrow 2-1 aggregate semi-final score separating the Italians and Real Madrid brought a disappointing conclusion to a season that could have ended so differently.
Eugenio Bersellini’s squad were flying as they headed to Napoli on matchday 19 as table toppers, spearheaded by Prohaska, who had scored three in his last four. There were three places but only one point between the two sides, with Roma, Juventus and I Partenopei all breathing down their neck.
And with a Mario Guidetti goal, Inter travelled back to Milan in fourth place. Looking to make up the ground at the top, Inter took an early lead against Fiorentina in the following fixture but two quickfire goals either side of half time effectively ended their Serie A hopes. A week later and a third straight defeat at title rivals Roma killed off any hopes of retaining the league.
They turned their attention to the European Cup and were back to winning ways three days later. Carlo Muraro finished off a trademark Inter passing move with Prohaska at the heart of things to secure a place in the final four, with Real Madrid standing between them and the final. 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 rang around the San Siro as the Austrian’s beautifully guided header bounced out off the inside of the post and from that point on, Real Madrid’s resolute defending was enough for them to nullify Inter’s tiki-taka threat and scrape through by a single goal. Despite not having any trophies to show for it, Prohaska’s incredible performances week in, week out were a very promising sign of things to come.
He once again played a key part in his second season at Inter and their run through the cup, 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 Serie A. Inter headed into matchday 21 of 30 just four points adrift of a first-placed Fiorentina-Juventus duo. Their opponents? Relegation-threatened AC Milan, who sat second bottom and in desperate need of a result to kick start their great escape.
Ten minutes in, Prohaska found himself in the right place at the right time, six yards from goal to give Inter a crucial lead in their pursuit of the top of the table. 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 after an Alessandro Altobelli header on 32 minutes separated the two sides and sent AC further into disarray.
The Nerazzurri failed to capitalise on their derby victory, winning just once in their final nine league games, but they could sleep well with a trophy in their cabinet and a helping hand in their rivals’ second-ever and most recent relegation to date.
As AC Milan’s previous demotion was sanctioned by the Italian Football Federation due to a betting scandal, 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 if not for his fantastic talent, but 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 small disruption of the 1982 World Cup as Austria, anchored by ‘Schneckerl’ once more, were looking to improve upon their second-round exit in 1978.
Donning their greatest ever talent pool, joint managers Felix Latzke and Georg Schmidt were hungry to upset the odds and make the headlines worldwide. Little did anyone know that their incessant hunger to succeed would lead to such a poisonous outcome.
The Austrians were off to a magnificent start in Spain, winning both of their opening two fixtures against Algeria and Chile without conceding a goal. Rivals West Germany found themselves at 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 allowing both teams to go through and send Algeria packing.
Pezzey, Krankl, Prohaska, 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 in fact. 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 Germany win, three shots (all unsurprisingly off-target) and eight tackles made throughout the entire second half rightly earns the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ title and the flood of backlash the match and its participants received.
Nevertheless, the two teams advanced to the second group stage. But Austria could only manage one point from their two matches against France and Northern Ireland to fall short at the second hurdle once more. 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 Serie A associates were on hand to spoil the party.
A controversial yet accomplished summer out of the way for the 27-year-old and it was back to business in Italy. After falling off in the latter stages of the 1981-82 season, Inter finished 11 points behind champions Juventus, who edged Fiorentina to the title by a solitary point. Despite arguably boasting Italian football’s best team, a string of injuries led to a disappointing third-placed finish for Roma.
The Giallorossi were eager to strengthen all over the pitch from the get-go to replenish their 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.
As per, Prohaska nosedived into action in a typically flawless nature that fans of Serie A had become accustomed to. Roma took an early lead at the top of the table with six wins from eight and never looked back from then on. The Austrian started all of the opening 29 matches in all competitions since his transfer, losing only four as the importance of his recruitment soon spread throughout the rest of the team.
He wasn’t just a missing piece of the puzzle, far from it in fact. A more accurate description would be a bridge across lava covering all of the pitch’s middle third. Defensively, Roma were comfortable in the knowledge that they had a simple but effective route up the pitch in Prohaska that was positioned to fill in a defence out of possession and fill out an attack with the ball.
On top of that, he provided freedom for his more forward-thinking associates, who could not only stay further forward for the sake of it but stay there in expectation of a precise through ball from that midfield third with plenty more options to choose from in the final third.
The plaudits, of course, went to other members in the team who were more productive in the majors, so to speak. The vast array of minor differences Prohaska made were more visible in his absence. Roma won just one of their four Serie A matches without the 27-year-old, a pattern that became clearer in the years that surrounded his departure.
In his only season with I Giallorossi, Prohaska helped his side to their first league triumph for 41 years, which went on to be 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, going all the way to a European Cup final whilst finishing second in the league 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 they welcomed home a national hero ready to refine 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, it had everything he could ever had 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 enough excitement, a seemingly preordained UEFA Cup trip to the San Siro to face an old friend certainly was.
Inter remained fresh with former teammates who were eager to reverse a one-goal deficit from the first-leg at the Franz Horr Stadium. After 70 minutes of resolute defending, the Austrians hard work looked to have been for nothing after an open goal presented itself to Alessandro Altobelli. Sighs of utter 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 in Europe, and defeating a former club was definitely the right way to go about doing that, even if Spurs knocked them out in the quarter-finals.
Austria Vienna well and truly asserted their national dominance with their main man back in the fold during the two years that followed. Prohaska was once again at the forefront of their success, scoring 19 times in all competitions, taking his tally to four consecutive league titles and grabbing his seventh and eighth career league trophies in the process. Unfortunately, he couldn’t carry his side further than the European Cup quarter-finals as they fell short 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 an illustrious career. He may not have set the world alight the way he might have liked to during his heady days, but he continuously provided the platform for other players to do so. Following his retirement in 1989, Prohaska received a lot of appreciation and admiration for an astounding career that was perhaps overlooked at times in its active state.
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 each and every team he played for in any way possible at the expense of individual exposure. A trait that few players, few born-winners can maintain throughout their entire career.
Amidst the sea of enormous egos that has long remained a big part of the game, Prohaska was a humble, heroic exception.