A growing sense of excitement has gripped the Austrian nation
as the countdown continues towards the summer of 2008, when the
eyes of the world will turn to the Alpine republic and neighbouring
Switzerland. The UEFA EURO 2008 co-hosts are determined to provide
a perfect stage for a festival of football at the highest level.
The gathering of Europe's elite footballing nations is a special challenge for Austria coach Josef Hickersberger, currently working tirelessly on preparing his team for their first-ever appearance at the European championship finals. The Austrians will need to find peak form on home soil, although former player Hickersberger, who turns 60 at the end of April and was a member of the Austrian side which finished eighth at Argentina 1978 and beat Germany 3-2 on the way, is respectful but by no means afraid of his side's big-name opponents this June.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Hickersberger about expectations, pressure, pride, home advantage, the reunion with Germany, what he hopes to achieve, and what co-hosting the tournament means for Austrian football.
FIFA.com: Josef Hickersberger, with Austria and Switzerland staging the European championships this summer, 2008 promises to be an exceptionally exciting and eventful year for you as Austria coach. How much are you personally looking forward to it?
Josef Hickersberger: I'm looking forward to it enormously, as the chance to take part in the tournament, and not merely that but to co-host it as well, is the event of the century, not just for Austrian football, but for the nation as a whole. Obviously it'll be a very demanding year, especially for me as head coach, but I'm happy to accept the burden in return for revelling in the atmosphere in my home country this June. We'll go into the tournament as underdogs, but hopefully I'll be in charge of a team capable of surprising a lot of people in a very positive way.
What do you feel the most, pride in leading your national team at the tournament, or the pressure to do well?
The pride, definitely! I've been coaching for a couple of decades now, and I've already enjoyed plenty of success and had some great experiences. Even now, despite a fantastic championship season with Rapid Vienna and qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, the best of the lot was qualifying for the 1990 FIFA World Cup with Austria, and the weeks we spent in Italy at the tournament. But I'm about to experience something even bigger than that, as there's nothing to match coaching the home team at a major finals in your own country.
How great is the pressure on the Austrian team?
Obviously, we're all feeling the pressure. We need to accept it as a challenge and use it to our advantage. We'll be working very hard on this in the coming months.
What do you think your role as UEFA EURO 2008 co-hosts means for Austrian football and the game's overall standing in Austria?
Taking the year as a whole, football is definitely the No1 sport in Austria, but in the winter months, skiing - and especially Alpine skiing - certainly takes pole position. Hosting UEFA EURO 2008 probably won't alter the situation very much, but staging the tournament and the worldwide media coverage that entails will definitely give an immense boost to the game's standing. Even before the event, you sense an improvement in football's status in society. Without the EURO, I'm not sure it would have been conceivable for the famous New Year's concert by the world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic and the legendary Vienna Opera Ball to be so completely dedicated to the game, but that's what happened in January this year. Obviously, we hope it proves permanent. The best thing would be if plenty of kids rediscover their interest in football and sign up with clubs.
Do you think we might witness a phenomenon similar to that at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ in Germany, where the home team performed above themselves on a wave of national euphoria?
I'm not sure many people believe it at the moment, but it's certainly possible. The team need to provide a spark for the fans and vice versa, and then you never know!
Belgium are the only hosts or joint hosts in the history of the European championships not to make at least the semi-finals. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com at the end of 2006, you said you hoped that would remain the case after UEFA EURO 2008. Now you've been drawn with Germany, Croatia and Poland, have you changed your views at all?
Our goal remains unchanged, even if it appears extremely challenging for the team currently lying 88th in the FIFA World Ranking. Despite the big-name opposition, we want to survive the group and make it to the quarter-finals. Naturally, we're fully aware we were and are rank outsiders for this EURO, and that's what we'll be when the tournament starts.
Are you personally looking forward to the reunion with your German neighbours?
Of course I am, especially because I have a very special relationship with Germany. I'm a child of the German Bundesliga, I really enjoyed my time as a player with Kickers Offenbach and Fortuna Dusseldorf, and I coached in Dusseldorf too.
On the one hand, 38-year-old Ivica Vastic has just been named Austrian Player of the Year. On the other hand, your juniors won praise from all sides for a sensational run to the semi-finals at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada last year. Will you go with experience this summer, or will you introduce some fresh young blood?
When I took over as Austria coach in January 2006, I approached it with a strategy and the task of radically rebuilding and rejuvenating a team with a number of extremely experienced players, but which failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup by some distance. It's a difficult course to pursue, because rebuilding or transforming a squad always takes time. In the first squad of 2008, the oldest player was born in 1976, so I think that tells you we'll be sending out a young team. But regardless of his date of birth, the EURO train has not left the station for any player yet. Everyone still has a chance to play his way into the team.
Finally, can we ask you for a prediction: which of the co-hosts will do best at UEFA EURO 2008?
I'm always wary of guesses and prophecies. At the Austrian FA New Year reception, a fortune-teller read my palm and told me Austria wouldn't win the trophy, but would still enjoy a successful tournament.
Naturally, FIFA.com also took the opportunity to speak exclusively with the head coach of the second UEFA EURO 2008 co-hosts. To see what Switzerland supremo Jakob 'Kobi' Kuhn had to say, follow the link on the right under News.