Austria have stunned fans and media alike by sealing a place
in the last 16 at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2007. The Europeans
finished second in their group, leaving Congo and even host nation
Canada trailing in their wake. At home in the Alpine republic,
following a collective rubbing of eyes in disbelief, experts have
begun talking of "the best Austrian youth team ever." The
statement came from no less a respected figure than Andreas Herzog,
capped 106 times by his country and currently assistant to national
head coach Josef Hickersberger. Just a year ahead of the 2008 UEFA
European Championship on home soil, the young squad's exploits
appear set to unleash a new wave of enthusiasm for the sport.
Twenty-four years have passed since Austria last sent a team to a FIFA U-20 World Cup finals. Previous campaigns have been less than memorable: Austria's solitary goal at a U-20 World Cup up to now came from Heinz Weiss at the Tunisia finals in July 1977, the consolation effort in a 5-1 loss to Iraq almost exactly 30 years ago. In 1983, the Austrians headed home from Mexico after three defeats, conceding ten goals and scoring none. They then vanished from the international scene for many years, but this year's showing in Canada holds out enormous hope for the future.
Herzog: A very special team
"This team is a little bit special," Herzog remarked, "every player has shown he's up to playing at this level. We've got a chance against every team we meet. We have an extremely quick forward line, so this generation's success is no fluke."
Zlatko Junuzovic is a vital component of the team, providing thrust and drive from midfield, a pivot and focal point for passing moves, and acting as a skilled provider for striker Erwin Hoffer, scorer of one of his team's two goals so far. "No Austrian team had ever made the last 16 before," the 20-year-old told FIFA.com, "but now we've done it. It's just tremendous, and we're enjoying every minute of our stay here."
The scenes at the end of the match against Chile offered proof of just how much the squad is enjoying itself. Long after the final whistle, the players celebrated in front of their fans, set off on a lap of honour, and even joined their supporters for snapshots in the stands. Rubin Okotie was one of that number.
"We're just overjoyed. It's a unique experience for us, we were out there celebrating among the crowd, it was really cool." Okotie passed up a glorious opportunity to seal victory in his side's opener against Congo, but he was on hand to earn his team their first win with the only goal of the game in the second match against the host nation. "Obviously I was very down after the first match. But I was determined to appear against Canada and make amends. The fact I actually succeeded was obviously tremendous. But most of all, I'm just delighted for the team," declared the striker, the son of an Austrian mother and Nigerian father.
Flying the flag for 2008
With the group stage out of the way, the Austrians now travel over 2000 miles from Toronto to the country's interior and Edmonton for Wednesday's meeting with Gambia. "I regard Gambia as a similar proposition to Congo," playmaker Junuzovic confidently observed, "there's plenty for us to aim at. We definitely have a chance of winning the match. If we give it 100% like we did today, we'll make it to the next round." The buoyant youngsters are riding a wave of belief at the moment, the dressing room exuding confidence and poise. Austria's chances of progressing must be rated as good. "It doesn't matter who we face now. We have to take it as it comes and win," a resolute Hoffer declared.
Hoffer, already capped for the senior Austrian side along with Veli Kavlak, Zlatko Junuzovic and U-20 captain Sebastian Prodl, acknowledges that the tournament in Canada could be a stepping stone to a role on a bigger stage, specifically EURO 2008: "Provided we get through, it's another chance for every individual player to be part of 'our' European Championship on home soil in 2008," he commented.
However, the continental showdown which Austria will co-host with Switzerland is still a long way off. The priority task is to focus on Canada and the prospect of progressing further in the tournament. "The atmosphere in the stadium here in Toronto today was amazing, it's made us even more determined," Junuzovic reflected. The men from the mountains are looking forward to more scenes of joy and celebration in the days ahead.