In November 2011, in the wake of Austria’s failure to qualify for UEFA EURO 2012, Marcel Koller took over as head coach with a brief to restore the Alpine nation’s languishing footballing fortunes. The decision to appoint a coach from neighbouring Switzerland was not without its detractors. The media and a handful of commentators were noisily sceptical, but seven months down the line, association president Leo Windtner’s controversial choice appears vindicated.
The nation which finished third at the FIFA World Cup™ way back in 1954 have just posted their best-ever placing since the introduction of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, rising from 73rd all the way to 58th. A leap of 15 places means the Austrians are the fourth-best climbers in June 2012, beaten only by Benin (52 places), the Central African Republic and New Zealand (30 places each).
Much of the credit for the Austrian revival lies with Koller. After a two-year break from the game, the former Cologne and Bochum boss chose to take up this new challenge in the full knowledge that expectations would be running high. After just two weeks in the job, he led his new charges for the first time in a friendly against UEFA EURO 2012 co-hosts Ukraine. Koller’s team fell to an unfortunate 2-1 defeat, but even at that early stage, there were signs of a revolution in the offing.
Austria have remained undefeated in the time since, beating Finland 3-1 back in February, and taking revenge on Ukraine by a 3-2 margin in early June. "This win was eminently important, because the team saw that it’s worth working hard. But it’s equally important not to read too much into the result," said the Swiss native, praising and admonishing his men in the same breath. A goalless draw a few days later against Romania, currently 52nd in the rankings, rated as another creditable result for the young Austrian team.
It’s like a young plant, which we want to keep on watering.
Koller knows that his job consists of taking one small step at a time, as reflected in his own assessment of the situation: "It’s like a young plant, which we want to keep on watering." The tender care and careful nurture has led to an early summer blossoming, as Austria are coming along extremely well. Their 524 ranking points mean they are a whisker away from a place in the European top 30.
Koller has been fortunate to inherit a side containing a pair of truly promising young players. David Alaba, described as Austria’s "footballing gem" by distinguished former international Andreas Herzog, is rapidly assuming significant responsibility in the ranks of the men in red and white.
The 19-year-old Bayern Munich utility man rates as his country’s most talented young player and became the youngest ever Austrian Footballer of the Year in 2011. "He’s just great to watch," Koller said admiringly. "Alaba is so much at home in midfield. That's his position, where he’s in the thick of the action. He’s young, dynamic and keen to kick on."
Many hopes also ride on enfant terrible Marko Arnautovic, scorer of a stunning winning goal in the 3-2 victory over Ukraine. The national coach appreciates the difficulty of getting the best out of the talented but combustive Werder Bremen star. "I’m convinced Austria will never have many players of his quality," commented Koller, "but I give him plenty of criticism, although never in public. He gets what’s coming to him. Arnautovic is a long way off being the finished product."
As are the current Austrian national team, whose next important target is a berth at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. Before the start of qualifying in September with a classic duel against neighbouring Germany, Koller has a few months to work his squad into optimal shape. The process has been set in motion, but all parties will now need to pull in the same direction to maintain their recent resurgence.