Almost a quarter of a century has passed since Austria last appeared at a FIFA U-20 World Cup . Back in 1983, a vintage crop including future legends such as Toni Polster, Franz Wohlfahrt and Andreas Ogris pulled on the traditional red and white in Mexico . Some 24 years later the small Alpine Republic is abuzz with expectation as a new generation has earned the right to test their prowess against the biggest names around. An outstanding third place at the UEFA U-19 European Championship in Poland last year saw the Austrians through to the world showpiece, scheduled to take place between 30 June and 22 July 2007 in Canada.
Austria U-20 boss Paul Gludovatz, a stalwart of the country's youth scene for a quarter of a century, is as excited as his players in advance of the big event. "It rates as a highlight of my career, especially as I'm close to collecting my pension. I'm totally focused on this fantastic event," he told FIFA.com.
His team are not travelling to the Great White North as cannon fodder either, the coach insisted. "It's not that we don't stand a chance, but obviously teams such as Argentina, Brazil and Spain must rate as favourites. We belong to the smaller nations with plenty still to learn, who hope rather than expect to progress from the first round, but our goal is definitely to reach the last sixteen. We'll work extremely hard toward that. We've always set our sights high."
Gludovatz identifies a number of areas of strength in his team. "Looking back over the last three-and-a-half years, I have to say we've been strong in defence. We've conceded very few goals, with the exception of the European Championship semi-final against Spain. We've mainly kept it very tight, and our goalkeepers have been consistent. The team is a strong unit with good spirit. And we've scored plenty of great goals."
The coach praises his players for taking the initiative and shouldering responsibility. "They've moved on a long way from simply taking orders, which may still have been the case when I was playing. They're part of a long chain of responsibility. They take DVDs home with them, and they also have access to my analyses of opposing teams. The extra work put in by each individual is decisive. Out in Canada, I'll be relying on the players' individual initiative," the Austrian coaching legend reveals. "At the World Cup, we'll have to follow the example we set in the European showdown with Belgium, mobilising everything we have mentally and physically, and make sure there's no repeat of what happened against Spain, where we basically threw in the towel after falling behind. It's something I still need to talk to my players about."
Preparation for the tournament will be focused on the period directly ahead of the event. "We'll probably only have all the players together for one friendly before the World Cup. We'll run a seminar in early June, but we'll have to do the fine-tuning once we're there. I'd like us to arrive six or seven days before our first match. That's when we'll top up our conditioning and toning. You only stand a chance if you're at peak fitness." Gludovatz will draw on his own reserves of experience, as he guided the Austrian U-17s to a FIFA World Championship in Egypt back in 1997 .
The squad will contain around 10 of the 18 players who featured in last year's successful European Championship campaign. Scouts are continuously sent out in search of new talent, and are closely monitoring the current indoor tournament programme. Only the fittest players will succeed in making it to Canada. Compared to the top teams, Gludovatz regards his side at a disadvantage in terms of resources.
The coach's most valuable talent, Veli Kavlak, could be summoned into the senior team at any time. The midfielder, a first-team regular at Rapid Vienna, has two goals to his name in 17 Austrian Bundesliga appearances and rates as one of the few players in the U-20 squad already capable of holding his own at senior level. "It's a decision for head coach Hickersberger and no one else," Gludovatz says.
The problem is hardly unique to Austria, as other nations frequently lose their best youths to teams higher up the national hierarchy. "But the loss of two or three players doesn't hurt countries such as Germany, Argentina and the rest. By contrast, we definitely suffered in terms of quality when we had to do without a couple of players at the European Championship."
Gludovatz' resources are stretched in other areas too. "I can't rule out losing one or two more players, as we're hosting the U-19 European Championships in Austria at almost exactly the same time. And we can't totally neglect our U-21 set-up either. On top of that, some of the players are out of contract at the end of the season, and another 12 or 13 are on national service and not playing regularly. It's very difficult coping with the specific needs of each individual player."
Focused on Canada
Despite the litany of potential problems, the coach and his players are licking their lips at the prospect of the big event. "We're delighted to be taking on our most important objective: to do something for Austria's image ahead of Euro 2008."
The young players are destined for an intense learning experience over in North America, the coach smiles. "At the moment, my lads really don't know what they stand to gain in terms of experience. You can follow events in Brazil or Africa over the internet, but at the end of the day, you have to experience things for yourself."
Gludovatz rates one of his major tasks as distributing responsibility on many shoulders. "It's always easier when you have a good crew to support you, including an assistant and a goalkeeping coach, plus help with the medical and organisational aspects. Helpers are vital, as I regard my job as managing the staff as a whole. Furthermore, times have changed and we approach young people in a different way nowadays. I've learnt a lot in my 25 years working in youth development, and I've passed on a lot of responsibility to the players."
A programme entitled 'The Austrian Way', an overall concept for youth development which began in 2000, started to bear fruit a few years ago. Austria's U-17 and U-19 teams have emerged as exciting prospects in recent years, evidenced by third-place finishes for both teams at their respective European Championships. These successes are unlikely to have been one-offs, and the competition will be careful not to underestimate the Austrians once the action starts in Canada.