Measured on what’s normal in Austria, the football euphoria in the country at the moment is bordering on the extreme. According to a recent survey, three per cent of the population in the Alpine country currently believe the national team will win the European Championship in summer 2016 – and that in Austria where pessimism has reigned for almost the past three decades.
There is good reason for the new outbreak of excitement as Austria is on the verge of qualifying for the European Championship finals for the first time ever via the groups. After the surprise 1-0 win against the coming World Cup hosts Russia in June, things will have to go badly wrong for the “Österreichische Fußball-Bund” (ÖFB - Austrian Football Association) if they are not to be a part of the finals. “We’re already on the train to France,” said ÖFB President Leo Windtner in view of the eight-point gap to the third-placed team – Russia – in Group G. They can book their tickets for the French high-speed train in the home game against Moldova on 5 September 5.
Major doubts are no longer appropriate. With five wins and a draw Austria is sitting pretty at the top of the qualifying group. In the current qualifying phase only England and Slovakia have been more successful whilst neighbours and World Champions Germany are having their difficulties in Group D. “There really has been a shift on the football map,” wrote the “”Kurier” newspaper almost in disbelief. The country’s only European Championship participation dates back to 2008 when Austria automatically qualified as co-hosts along with Switzerland. As for qualifying directly on the pitch for a major tournament, the last time they managed it was back in 1998 for the World Cup in France.
National coach Marcel Koller feels the euphoria is going a little bit too far. “We’ve not crossed the finishing line yet. I’m only counting the points we’ve got. I don’t want to hear we’re the third best team in Europe,” warned the Swiss who also doesn’t want to play down the improvements. “A win like the one against Russia gives us a real boost once again. We now know we’re in with a real chance. The negative thoughts have disappeared.”
Koller is quasi the initiator of the success. Since taking office on 1 November 2011, there has been a dramatic upturn in Austrian football. Thirty matches have produced 15 wins and only eight have been lost. Koller is the first long-term coach since Herbert Prohaska (1993 to 1999) to have recorded more wins than losses. In the world rankings, Austria has moved up to No. 20 from No. 70 four years ago. Calm and level-headed, Koller is a popular figure in Austria. The fact that at the end of 2013 he turned down the chance to take over from Ottmar Hitzfeld as the national coach in his home country has gone down well amongst Austrians. The former 1. FC Cologne and VfL Bochum coach admitted though that it had been the most difficult decision in his football life. However his mission in Austria was not at an end stressed the Swiss.
“He has welded us together and done a lot for us,” praised David Alaba from German champions FC Bayern Munich. The 23-year old, who has a more offensive role for Austria than at his club, is the star of the team. In the past two years he was voted Austria’s Sportsman of the Year which was almost an affront against the nation’s successful winter sportsmen. The fact that Austria was still able to play so impressively in the EURO 2016 qualification even without the injured Alaba is an indication that a real improvement has taken place within the team generally. The side is now “tight-knit bunch” said Koller. “If one has a problem then it’s swept away in an oasis of well-being.”
The most important parts in the set-up are the Bundesliga pros. Against Russia, 11 squad members were on the books of German clubs. Martin Harnik from VfB Stuttgart or the two Bremen players Zlatko Junozovic and Sebastian Prödl are key figures within the team. Perfectionist Koller is still sees room for improvement especially when it comes to converting their goals-scoring chance – 11 goals in six qualifying matches leaves a little to be desired. At the moment the coach is trying out Marc Janko (a future FC Basel player) up front. The striker scored a brilliant bicycle kick against Russia: http://www.heute.at/sport/fussball/international/em2016/art62494,1171868.
The last win also marked the begin of ÖFB’s search for a base in France. Negative thinking was yesterday. After all, more than 50 per cent of all Austrians are certain they will reach the last 16 at the finals. It is something that hasn’t happened in years.