It is not going to be the joyful occasion they first thought, but the Lask players are determined to make history regardless. When the Europa League last-16 draw pitted them against Manchester United on 28 February games were still played with fans in the stadiums in Austria but that has all changed in the past week.
The coronavirus outbreak means that Lask will have to play the biggest game in their history behind closed doors. It is a blow to the players, the fans and the club’s finances – the president, Siegmund Gruber, says the club will lose an estimated €1m (£870,000) in revenues – with the captain, Gernot Trauner, calling it “a middle-sized catastrophe”.
Trauner, however, also pointed out that a lack of fans in the stadium does not mean that the players will be less motivated. It is still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of them to reach the last eight of a European competition and they have shown in recent years that they are capable of achieving the unexpected.
It is fair to say that the recent rise of Lask has largely gone unnoticed outside Austria and after the draw Gary Lineker tweeted: “Who the hell are Lask by the way? Don’t worry I Lask someone.” It was said tongue in cheek, with a smiling emoji next to it, and one of the club’s sponsors responded to the tweet by remaking an advert for the club to include the line, “The Red Devils? Never heard of ’em”.
The Lask manager, Valérien Ismaël, however, refused to get caught up in it all. When asked about Lineker’s tweet, he simply said: “I don’t care about that because I know what we have got [quality-wise] and what we can do. The truth can always be found on the pitch.”
Ismaël has a point but sometimes the truth can be found off the pitch too, as Lask fans know only too well. As late as 2013 the club were on the brink of going out of business with the managing director, Gerhard Klein, admitting in October that year that “the lights can go out soon”.
In 2012 they had not been able to renew their licence to play in the top two divisions and had dropped down to the third tier. During the 2013-14 season they moved away from their home stadium because it was too expensive to play there. The finances were in a terrible state and the club were desperately trying to find a buyer. “The best solution would be to find a local solution,” Klein said, “and if we can find that then maybe the ice age of Lask Linz is finally over.”
Two months later they struck a deal with a group of local investors called “Freunde des Lask” (Friends of Lask) to take over the club with Wolf-Dieter Holzhey becoming the new president. Fourteen “friends” initially committed to put in €75,000 each, guarantee another €75,000 and raise €50,000 in sponsorship money.
The results have been remarkable. After two promotions they returned to the Austrian Bundesliga in 2017. In 2018 they finished fourth in the top division and the season after they were second behind RB Salzburg. That second-place finish led to a place in the Champions League play-offs, where they lost to Club Brugge, before winning their Europa League group ahead of Sporting Lisbon, PSV Eindhoven and Rosenborg.
AZ Alkmaar were beaten in the round of 32 to set up the meeting with United. After the draw the LASK goalkeeper Alexander Schlager said: “With this draw a childhood dream will come true. You found out about Theatre of Dreams as a kid and we are all looking forward to the duel.”
Ismaël was equally enthusiastic about the draw, saying that they now had “an incredible highlight” ahead of them. “Manchester United are one of the best teams in the world,” he said. “We are looking forward to the challenge and will prepare very well. The aim for the first game is to make sure we are in a good position for the away leg.”
The coach often sends out his team in an adventurous 3-4-3 formation and they are currently top of the league in Austria. RB Salzburg have been crowned champions for the past six years but Ismaël’s team are currently six points ahead of their rivals.
The full-back Trauner is one key player, the goalkeeper Schlager another, but the key to Lask’s success is inevitably their togetherness. “It really is incredible what we as a team have achieved,” said the midfielder Rene Renner after Lask had beaten AZ Alkmaar. “We always want more and we are never satisfied. A huge reason why we have been so successful is our team spirit.”