On the eve of UEFA EURO 2008,
FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Austria captain
Andreas Ivanschitz. The midfielder, on the books at Greek top
flight outfit Panathinaikos for the last two seasons, looked ahead
to the continental showdown in his home country, assessed his role
in coach Josef Hickersberger's team, and offered his views on
the eagerly-awaited clash with arch-rivals Germany.
The 24-year-old's career is still in its relatively early stages, but he already boasts two notable achievements. On 26 October 1999, the then 16-year-old became the youngest player to appear in a competitive fixture for Rapid Vienna. Then, at the tender age of 19 years and 361 days, he became the youngest-ever captain of Austria after leading his country in a FIFA World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic on 11 October 2003.
Also in our exclusive interview, Ivanschitz evaluated the mood in his home country and his team's chances at UEFA EURO 2008.
FIFA.com: Andreas Ivanschitz, it's almost time for UEFA EURO 2008 in your home country. Are you a little tense?
Andreas Ivanschitz: I'm tense, but definitely in a positive sense. Up until 14 May I was completely focused on my club. Fortunately, we've come through the play-offs and won a place in the Champions League qualifying round. I think I've made a contribution with two goals in our derby against AEK, for example. But I joined up with the national squad on 19 May and we've been working really hard since then, so there's been no time to get nervous, although obviously, all the players think about the huge challenge of the EURO every single day.
You earn your wages in Greece with Panathinaikos, but could you just describe the mood in Austria on the eve of the European Championship?
The mood is essentially more positive than it was last autumn. It's definitely been helped by the internationals in February and March against Germany and the Netherlands. I know we lost both games, but for an hour or so on each occasion, we proved we can hold our own against these world-class teams. The fans in Austria are definitely looking forward to it. There are lots of cars already flying red-and-white flags, and people are devouring media reports about the EURO, especially anything about our team.
This will be Austria's first major tournament in a decade, and a first shot at the European Championship in 44 years. Is the lack of tournament experience a disadvantage?
Obviously, almost every other country has the edge in this respect. We have home advantage on our side, we've had longer to prepare for the tournament than any other team, and last but not least, we're extremely hungry. Apart from Ivica Vastic, none of us has played at a major finals before.
You made your full international debut in 2003. What has changed about the Austrian national team since then, and what are your reasons for optimism ahead of the continental showdown?
Since taking over the team in 2006, Josef Hickersberger has overseen the introduction of a completely new generation. The fresh start obviously hasn't been easy, and we've been through some difficult times in the last couple of years. But Mr Hickersberger has refused to be diverted from his chosen path, and I'm convinced the team has a future now. In our last international, the average age of the outfield players was under 24. I think it's been a remarkable team rebuilding.
You're team captain and coach Hickersberger's right-hand man. How do you interpret your role, both on and off the field?
I try to be as closely involved in the team as possible. As captain and with nearly 40 caps now, I regard myself as a leader. But there are plenty of strong personalities in the dressing room, and I'm part of a team at the EURO, just like 22 others.
Up until recently, Austria were regarded as stronger in defence than attack. However, in your 4-3 defeat to the Netherlands, the strikers posed a real threat but the defence was shaky at times. How would you rate the different areas of the team, and what system would you personally favour as you tackle a very tough group?
The system we use is chosen by the boss and the coaching staff alone. What's important for us is the knowledge we can equally well play 4-4-2 as 3-5-2, or indeed other formations. I think that makes us a little more unpredictable for our opponents too.
You mentioned a 3-0 defeat to Germany, and now you meet them again in Group B. Why should Austria do better at the EURO?
Hopefully because we'll create as many chances as we did in February, but actually put them away on this occasion. The Germany match is obviously about prestige, but at the moment I'm just focused on daily training.
You also come up against Croatia, but all three previous meetings have ended in defeat. Will it be any different at the EURO?
Croatia showed in qualifying they're an absolutely class team, but I still reckon we have an excellent chance, especially as it's the opening match and I'll be up against my former team-mate Niko Kovac. We could be good for a surprise.
And you have a relatively good record against Poland (three wins and four defeats).
Poland qualified very comfortably for the EURO, and finished ahead of EURO 2004 runners-up Portugal, so we'll still go into the game as underdogs. But with the crowd behind us, I reckon we can win - just like against Croatia and Germany!
How much will home advantage count in favour of yourselves and co-hosts the Swiss?
It could play a major role, just think back to the World Cup in Germany two years ago. And Austrian fans can get very passionate about their team. There was a fantastic atmosphere for our most recent match against the Dutch.
Who do you rate as favourites for the trophy?
There are several. World Cup holders Italy for one, and you've got to include France, Portugal, Spain and Germany. But all 16 nations are in with a chance, and you always get upsets at the European Championship. Just think of Greece and Denmark!