Pride often comes before a fall in football, as Austrian
youngster Erwin Hoffer knows only too well. Some 11 months ago, the
strike prodigy helped his country secure a sensational semi-final
berth at the UEFA U-19 European Championship in Poland.
Having scored in every group match, disaster struck when Hoffer picked up his second yellow card of the tournament - forcing him to watch from the sidelines as his team-mates took a 5-0 thrashing from eventual winners Spain. "On the coach back to the hotel after the match, he was bawling his eyes out," recalls coach Paul Gludovatz.
The 61-year-old Gludovatz has been in football long enough to know that second chances must be grasped with both hands. He is about to take his country's youngsters to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, where all eyes will be on Hoffer in his quest to right the wrongs of last year. "I'm nervous," the youngster told FIFA.com, "but above all I'm really motivated."
Shooting star, shrinking violet
It has been 24 years since Austria took part in world football's second biggest tournament. Future legend Toni Polster was in the squad back then and had already caught the eye, before going on to ply his trade across Europe with the likes of Torino, Sevilla and FC Cologne.
Great things are also expected of Hoffer, who already made his mark with his speed and eye for goal last season for Rapid Vienna. The player himself knows the value of a good performance on North American soil: "When I see all of the world-class footballers who started out at the U-20 World Cup, then I know that it's a real honour for me to be taking part here."
The undisputed star of the young Austrian team and occupying a
special place in Rapid fans' hearts, Hoffer remains a shy and
retiring individual. Back home, he goes by the name of
'Jimmy', a nickname given by a former coach in reference to
the former US trade union leader and convict Jimmy Hoffa.
Thankfully young Erwin is nowhere near as brash as his namesake:
"In Canada, every single player will have to pull their
weight, otherwise we'll have a really tough time of it."
Shy and retiring he may be, but 'Jimmy' is a bundle of energy, determination and will-power once he crosses that white line. "Never give up" is his motto, and that has translated into goals - 19 of them in 32 youth internationals including a brace in the 6-1 pre-tournament friendly win over Austrian league runners-up SV Ried.
Hoffer made his full international debut in the goalless draw on
2 June against Paraguay, and earned a glittering review from
national team coach Josef Hickersberger after the match. No wonder
that Hoffer sees "the tournament in Canada as a great
opportunity to make a name for myself".
Opportunity is indeed knocking. Rubin Okotie is the only other out-an-out striker in the 21-man FIFA U-20 World Cup squad, so Hoffer will get every chance to showcase his goal-scoring skills. "We're a really compact kind of team, from the defence right through to the attack, so whenever a chance comes along, we're going to have to take it," says the gifted front-runner. "It definitely won't be easy, but we've got every chance of playing well and having a good tournament."
Austria will open their Group A campaign on 2 July in Edmonton against Congo, where Gludovatz and his young charges will also take on hosts Canada in front of a sell-out 65,000 crowd three days later. The final group match will be on 8 July in Toronto against Chile, making Group A a tough but not impossible challenge for the Austrians. "We mustn't underestimate our opponents," says Hoffer, "and if we remember that, then our main aim, which is to reach the second round, becomes more realistic."
Making it through the group stages of a world tournament would also represent a form of redemption for Hoffer, who will surely be extra-careful this time not to pick up two yellow cards. "It's just the greatest feeling to be at an U-20 World Cup," he smiles. Mere lip service perhaps? Not a chance, as anyone who saw his amazed reaction when Austria's Chancellor Dr Alfred Gusenbauer came to the training camp to wish the players luck will testify. Filled to the brim with vigour and youthful enthusiasm, Canada 2007 could see 'Jimmy' make a name for himself in his own right.