While mountains, snow and winter sports are often the first
things people think of when you mention Austria, the impressive
progress made by the Alpine nation's U-20 team at the FIFA
World Cup means football must now be a contender for that list.
Rubin Okotie is one of the stand-out players in the 21-strong squad
coached by Paul Gludovatz.
The striker boasts an intriguing background. His father is Nigerian and his mother an Austrian, although Okotie was not born in the shadow of the Alps. The truly multi-cultural lad entered the world in June 1987 in Pakistan, but was brought up in Barcelona until the age of four.
The 20-year-old has been an Austrian resident ever since, and currently turns out for the FK Austria Magna reserves in Vienna. If his performances in Canada are anything to go by, it will not be long before he pulls on a first-team jersey. Simply taking part at the FIFA World Cup in Canada represents the fulfilment of a dream, as he revealed to FIFA.com. "Obviously, I always dreamed of appearing at a World Cup, but when you finally make it and get here, it's really very special indeed."
The striker has brought his powerful aerial presence to bear on all four games to date, shooting to prominence after netting the only goal of the game in his side's victory over the hosts. "We started believing in ourselves a lot more after that, as we realised how far we could go." Austria duly progressed to a Round of 16 date with Gambia, where a 2-1 victory earned them a berth in the last eight, re-establishing Austria on the world youth football map. "We ourselves weren't surprised at all, because we always felt we were in with a chance. We knew we'd do well provided we played as a team," Okotie explains.
Awareness of the team's exploits has risen with every passing match, as more and more Austrians set their alarms for the early hours to watch and cheer on their young hopefuls. The games have attracted record viewing figures on national TV, despite kick-off times deep in the central European night. That is set to change for the meeting with the USA: the afternoon kick-off in Toronto equates to primetime in Austria. In addition, the city of Linz is to stage a Public Viewing as the kick-off event for the UEFA European U-19 Championship, which open in Austria next week. "It's tremendous knowing the whole country's watching us. It makes us even more determined to do well," Okotie declares.
Asked about his team's prospects against the Americans, the striker oozes confidence: "The USA are very strong, but we're strong too. I reckon it'll come down to form on the day. We'll need the right blend. Physical strength won't be enough, we'll need to play well too."
The Austrian lads are fully focused on the upcoming showdown, but have not forgotten to enjoy themselves too. The squad has been together for fully three weeks, and is pulling even closer together under coach Gludovatz with every passing day. "The mood in the team is fantastic, we're getting along well with each other, and there are plenty of jokes and pranks," Okotie laughs.
By contrast, the subject of racism is absolutely no laughing matter for the dark-skinned Okotie, an occasional target for obscene and hurtful insults. "Obviously, you do get incidents from time to time. It hits you hard, and it hurts," the Austrian confesses. FIFA's Anti-Discrimination Days covering the quarter-finals are of special personal importance to him. Quite apart from his skin colour, he is by no means the only multi-cultural player in the squad, as Gludovatz explains. "We have players from a number of backgrounds: Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Poland and Bosnia. The way we run things, integration shouldn't be a problem for anyone."
Okotie's colourful background and dual nationality do pose a "problem" of sorts. Provided they keep on winning, Austria could meet Nigeria in the Final here in Canada. "Nigeria!" the 20-year-old exclaims with a shout of laughter, "obviously that would be tremendous for me, a sensational experience." However, the player would have no issue with his split allegiance in that case: "Naturally I'd be an Austrian if it happened. I live there, it's where I have my friends, and I think of myself as Austrian." The Alpine republic can count itself fortunate to add a footballer of Okotie's talent and calibre to its well-known ranks of outstanding winter athletes.