Ivica Vastic boasts Croatian roots and was born in Split, but he
proudly goes in search of goals for Austria, where he has long been
a national sporting hero. His iconic status is partly based on an
enduring knack of netting vital late goals.
At the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, he kept his country in the group stage running with a last-minute equaliser to snatch a 1-1 draw with Chile. A decade later, he claimed Austria's first-ever goal at the UEFA European Championship finals, sending a capacity home crowd at the Ernst-Happel stadium into raptures with a coolly-taken stoppage-time penalty for a 1-1 draw with Poland, throwing the EURO 2008 co-hosts a dramatic lifeline in their bid for a quarter-final berth.
Ahead of the final and decisive Group B fixture against neighbours and arch-rivals Germany on Monday evening in Vienna, where the Austrians must win to retain an interest in the tournament, the 38-year-old Vastic spoke exclusively to FIFA.com. Austria's current player of the year was bristling with intent, determined to play his part as Austria seek a place in the quarter-finals alongside Croatia, his country of birth.
FIFA.com: Ivica, your last-gasp equaliser against Poland hands you another entry in the record books as Austria's first-ever goalscorer at the European Championship finals. What did you feel immediately after converting from the spot, and in the hours after the game?
Ivica Vastic: Obviously I'm very proud I put away the penalty. I'm especially delighted because it's created an excited buzz again, not just in the dressing room, but throughout the country. We have a chance of remaining in the tournament, and we've set up an all-or-nothing third group fixture. I'm much more delighted about that than the whole business of being the first scorer at a EURO, to be honest.
You've put your first point on the board and you have your passionate army of fans behind you, so Austria must be brimming with confidence now.
Naturally, the point was a confidence-booster, but I believe the team would be getting better with every game in any case. I hope I'm proved right in our next match.
Given the situation in the group, would you say this is the
most dramatic, intriguing and biggest match in Austrian footballing
I don't know if it's the biggest game in our history. I think we'll only find out afterwards. What I can say is that it's obviously the most important game for us at the present time, because it's all or nothing.
How will Austria approach the match?
We have to believe in ourselves. Croatia have shown us the way to beat Germany. If we can play the way we did in the second half against Croatia and the first half against Poland, we're certainly good enough to beat Germany.
You're the veteran in the team, so how will you help the younger players avoid showing too much respect and perhaps even fear against the three-time European champions?
Obviously I can help a lot by talking to the players, but our pre-tournament friendlies, including the one against Germany, were much more important. It showed our young players they're perfectly capably of holding their own against the Germans. But on the other hand, they'll have to work tirelessly in defence for 90 minutes and keep defending right to the end, while at the same time trying to pose a threat.
How does a 38-year-old striker continue to make an impact at the highest level? Is it all down to experience?
I don't believe it's experience and nothing else. Experience obviously helps, but you also have to be perfectly prepared, both physically and mentally.
Is the tournament a highlight in the autumn of your career?
Yes! Obviously, it's a real highlight for me personally. And I dream of hopefully staying in the tournament for a while longer.
What's changed in Austria over the last few weeks, and what do you feel when you see images of the streets, the fans and the passion?
You see that football has the power to inspire the fans and the people. You see how euphoria has swept the nation after a good result. I'm thrilled it's no longer just the skiing in the winter, but also we footballers who are contributing to the euphoria and passion across the country.