VIENNA (Reuters) - Just days before Euro 2008 kicks off you are more likely to see a Gustav Klimt painting, rather than a picture of a footballer, on a placard in host city Vienna.
In a capital famed for its imperial architecture, world-class art museums, traditional black-tie balls and classical music, talk of Euro 2008 is still largely greeted with bewilderment or indifference by most Vienna locals.
“We are not a footballing nation — we are a winter sport nation,” said Dariusz Hoefer, 47, a city-centre shop owner.
Student Christian Hofstadler, 21, agreed.
“I don’t really know anyone that bothered about Euro 2008. I guess the Austrian football team is to blame — they have been very weak historically,” he said.
The Austrian team are ranked 101st in the world.
But the Austrians say they are determined to impress visitors with what are they are good at — culture — if not their footballing prowess.
“We are already the European champions of culture,” smiled author Reinhard Prenn, organizer of a soccer and literature festival for Austria and its immediate neighbors.
“Let’s call the Swiss runners-up.”
Austria and its Alpine neighbor Switzerland will together host the June 7-29 tournament.
“It was always clear that if Austria hosted Euro 2008 the cultural sector would be included as well,” said Austrian literature expert Michael Hansel, a midfielder in the Austrian writers’ team that played in a tournament at the festival.
A fan zone accommodating up to 70,000 visitors is taking shape in the historic heart of the city, nestled between theatres, squares and prestigious museums — in an attempt to introduce fans to Vienna’s cultural heritage.
“It really is a fantastic location and it shows you what a historic, cultural city Vienna is,” said Anja Richter of the Vienna Euro 2008 organizing committee.
“Football is of course the central focus of the fan zone but we also want to show that 365 days a year there is an excellent cultural program on offer in Vienna, and we hope people will make a return visit to the city.”
The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Vienna boys’ choir and Austrian pop singer Christina Stuermer will open the fan zone, with rousing classics such as Johann Strauss’ Tritsch-Tratsch Polka on the program.
There are many skeptics.
“The soccer fans will have a Bratwurst and a beer — they are hardly going to go to a fancy restaurant, a Mozart opera or a theatre play,” said Hoefer.
“They should have put the fan zone on the Danube island,” he said, referring to an uninhabited location outside the city centre.
Vienna’s Burgtheatre, finding itself right next to the giant fan zone has even decided to shut down for a month.
“Due to the fan zone, the Burgtheatre will be closed from June 4 until the end of the season,” reads a blunt notice on the theatre’s Web site.
According to Austrian media, the theatre’s director Klaus Bachler said it was a “cultural disgrace.”
In a recent survey of 1,000 Austrians by market research institute Spectra, 37 percent said they had “absolutely no interest” in the soccer tournament, almost twice as many as those who were “very interested.”
But Georg Wagner, working at a souvenir shop close to St Stephen’s cathedral insisted his range of Austrian flags, fan scarves, and soccer trinkets were beginning to sell.
“Anything Gustav Klimt-related is always very popular of course,” he said, pointing at plates, glasses, ash trays and t-shirts all emblazoned with the Austrian painter’s 1908 classic “The Kiss.”
“But the football items are in demand with tourists and with locals too,” he said.
Vienna postal worker Doris Zant, 37, said she for one was looking forward the football.
“Sure, we are good at skiing, waltzing and classical music, but as we get closer to the tournament people will get much more excited about things.”
Her colleague Christian Tomrle, 40, gingerly fingering the two Austrian flags attached to his motorbike said: “After all, our Austrian players play in good clubs all over Europe.”
Editing by Sonia Oxley