When Austria contested the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first and only time at the 1997 edition in Egypt, Sascha Horvath had just passed his first birthday, and any idea that he might one day represent his country at the most junior international level could only have been a dream harboured by his parents. But 16 years later, the gifted youngster has not only made it into the national squad, but also helped the Austrians qualify for the U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
“I'm looking forward to every single match, and I'll enjoy every minute on and off the field. The thing I'm most looking forward to is the chance to test myself against the other players from around the world and represent Austria at the finals," declared Horvath, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. The midfielder can hardly wait for the tournament to get underway: “The best players in the world in our age group play at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. It'll definitely be a fantastic experience, and especially for a young player like myself, the chance to appear at a World Cup is really special. The atmosphere at the European Championship was pretty impressive, but it'll be another feeling again at the World Cup."
At the UEFA European Under-17 Championship in Slovakia last May, Horvath and his team-mates faced the hosts, Sweden and Switzerland. After a narrow opening day defeat to the Slovaks and a draw with the Swedes, the Austrians needed a win against the Swiss to keep alive their dream of a place at the global showdown. Despite a victory over their Alpine neighbours, Hermann Stadler’s team failed to qualify for the semi-finals, but their record was good enough not only to seal a place at the finals, but also to confirm their status as a side not to be under-estimated in the UAE.
Valuable tournament experience
“It wasn't a good start against hosts Slovakia, but that painful defeat brought us even closer together," the player recalled. “It helped us improve from match to match, and we hit our target of a place at the World Cup. We also proved we’re capable of good football even under pressure. The experience has made us even stronger."
Horvath, a central midfielder who is on the books with domestic champions Austria Vienna, will need all that experience at the forthcoming World Cup. The Austrians have been drawn in Group E with Canada, Iran and Argentina, with the South Americans likely to provide the toughest opposition. The junior Albiceleste have qualified for 12 of the last 15 editions of the tournament, but Horvath is by no means intimidated.
“I think we’re a strong team and we need fear no-one. In recent matches, we beat Italy and also reigning Asian champions Uzbekistan. If we play to our potential, we’re capable of overcoming the big nations. I'm convinced we can definitely go further than we did in 1997, but each individual has to give absolutely everything," the 17-year-old told FIFA.com.
In their previous appearance, the Austrians packed for home early after losing all three of their group games and failing to pick up a point. Horvath firmly believes it will be better this time round, and has convincing reasons for doing so.
Team spirit and a role model
“The team is the thing that matters to us and team spirit is our priority. We certainly have good individuals too, but we're only strong as a team, and we can only win as a team," the midfielder declared. “Our team is like a tight-knit community, and we describe ourselves as a band of brothers. We’ve become friends, and each of us is ready to fight for the others."
If things go well for the Austrians at the World Cup, and if he himself delivers the goods, Horvath would inevitably catch the eye of watching scouts and potentially move a step closer to his own personal dream.
“Obviously, I'd like to move abroad to a big club at some point, and win the Champions League just like David Alaba. David has been consistently excellent in recent years, and I think it's very impressive. It's a dream come true for a young Austrian player to win the Champions League at such a young age. And he's also a special role model for me, because he played for my club Austria Vienna as a youth."
A good display at the U-17 World Cup would lay the foundations for Horvath’s career target, so it is now up to the young hopeful to go out and stake his claim.