Ernst Happel - Austria's greatest manager ever

The Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna
The Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna
If we talk about managers who have won the European Cup with two different clubs or who have won league titles in four European countries, most will think of Carlo Ancelotti or Jose Mourinho, and rightfully so. However, before them, this type of feat had already been achieved by another great manager, Ernst Happel. Many football fans might recognize the famous Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna, but not the man behind the name.

The Austrian was characterized by reaching important achievements with clubs that, until then, were not used to getting to those levels, something that he managed to accomplish with a particular style. Strategist, studious, serious, a man of few words and a cigar always in his hand, this is the story of Ernst Happel.

Happel as player

Happel was a prominent center back in the Austrian league where he spent the majority of his professional playing career, along with a two-year spell at Racing Club de France. Happel played just for Rapid Vienna while in his country where, interestingly, he formed a great defensive partnership with Max Merkel, another who would be a successful manager. He was also part of the Austrian national team with which he participated in two World Cups (1954 and 1958), finishing third in 1954.

In the Netherlands

His career as a manager began in the Netherlands, specifically in the humble ADO Den Haag, where he would spend seven years (including a brief stage in what was a particular case in football where the team formed the American team San Francisco Golden Gate Gales) and would win his first trophy as a manager, the Netherlands Cup, hinting at what would become his hallmark: lifting trophies with surprising teams.

Feyenoord flag
The good work in Den Haag caught the attention of Feyenoord, being one of the most successful decisions in the club's history since, in its first year, they would win the European Cup, the club's first and only and the first for any Dutch club at the time. With Happel on the bench, Feyenoord gained unprecedented international notoriety in football for the Netherlands because they not only won the European Cup but also faced Osvaldo Zubeldía's Estudiantes de la Plata for the Intercontinental Cup, equalizing the match in the first leg at the La Bombonera stadium at two goals after losing 2-0. In the second leg in Rotterdam, a goal by Joop van Daele who came on from the bench made Feyenoord and Happel world champions. A year later, he would also win the Eredivisie, his first but not last national league.

After four years in Rotterdam and in a career move that was, to say the least, surprising, Happel became manager of Sevilla, which at that time was in the Second Division (Segunda División). The Austrian wanted to get to know the city and experience the Seville lifestyle even though his experience in Spain only lasted half a season. He almost immediately received the call from Club Brugge and began a stage full of successes for the Belgian team.

In Belgium

In his four years in Brugge, he won three consecutive leagues and a Belgian Cup and led Brügge to a UEFA Cup final in 1976, which they lost to Bob Paisley's Liverpool, which included, among others, Kevin Keegan, who scored two goals for the final aggregate 4-3. Two years later, Happel would reach his second European Cup final, again, against Paisley's Liverpool, who would snatch the trophy thanks to a goal from Kenny Dalglish.

That season would be Happel's last as manager of Club Brugge and during that year he shared his job in the Belgian team with that of coach of the Netherlands national team, playing in the 1978 World Cup, without Cruyff, who decided not to participate in the tournament. At that time, the format of the competition was of two consecutive group phases from which the two finalists and those who would play the match for third place would come out. The Netherlands would reach the final, leaving Italy, West Germany and Happel's native Austria. In the final, it was necessary to go into extra time to break the tie at one, where Argentina managed to prevail with goals from Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni.

At the end of the World Cup, he had another of those particular spells that always accompanied Happel's career, signing for Harelbeke in Belgium, staying only 6 months before going to Standard Liege, where he lasted 2 years and won the Belgian Cup, breaking a bad run of the club of 6 years without winning a trophy and 14 years without lifting the Belgian Cup.


In 1981, already an important name in Europe, he moved to Germany to train Hamburg SV where in his first year he won the Bundesliga and reached a new UEFA Cup final that he would lose to the surprising IFK Goteborg, who was managed by a, until then, little known manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson. The following year, he would repeat with the Bundesliga title and would have his revenge in Europe, but this time, on the highest European stage, the European Cup.

That season, Hamburg was up against super stars like Michel Platini, Gaetano Scirea, Dino Zoff, Zbigniew Boniek och Paolo Rossi in a Juventus side that had legendary manager Giovanni Trapattoni on the bench. A goal from Felix Magath in the 8th minute was enough for the German club, just like it happened with Happel at Feyenoord, to win their first and only European Cup in their history, in addition to making the Austrian the first manager in history in winning the competition with two different teams. Before ending his successful 6-year spell in Germany, he won a DFB Pokal.


After triumphing in Europe, Happel decided to train for the first time in his country, joining Swarovski Tirol. True to his career, the Austrian manager won the first trophies in the club's showcases; two Leagues and one Cup in his first two years, making him the first coach to win the league and the national cup in four European countries. In 1992, he would be hired by the Austrian Football Federation to managed the national team, but, being a chain smoker, he developed lung cancer that ended up killing him in that same 1992.

Perhaps the fact of not having coached one of the top clubs in Europe has not allowed him to gain the worldwide recognition that he should have (even though this should actually give him more recognition!), although it is clear that the Austrian is part of a select group of the best managers in the history of this sport.
Kelvin Tingling knows most things about football and also likes to write about it. Kelvin lives in Buenos Aires and his favorite team is Boca Juniors.