One word could be heard over and over again in the bowels of Toronto's National Soccer Stadium on Saturday evening: "Unbelievable." Austria's young guns had just overturned the highly-fancied USA 2-1 in a thrilling quarter-final, and for many of the players their achievement had still yet to sink in.
Having acknowledged their fans and performed the obligatory lap of honour after the final whistle, the players retired to the changing rooms to serve up an impromptu bucket-of-water shower for coach Paul Gludovatz and his assistant Gerhard Schweitzer. Then it was time for a squad rendition of the Austrian contingent's unofficial anthem, Reinhard Fendrich's "I am from Austria". Summing up the atmosphere shortly after for FIFA.com, goalscorer Rubin Okotie revealed: "I just can't put into words what went on in the dressing room, there was such a release of emotions. It's incredible for a small country like Austria to be in the semi-finals of a World Cup."
With Josmer Altidore having powered the US into an early lead, it was Okotie who brought Austria level just before the break, pouncing on a fumble from American keeper Chris Seitz. "I think we were the hungrier side out there today, we wanted the victory at all costs," said the Austria Vienna youth-team striker. "That may have been the decisive factor."
'Jimmy' came, scored and conquered
One of the first congratulatory calls Gludovatz received after the match was from none other than Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer. The game went out live on prime-time television back home and the players' mobile phones hardly stopped ringing after the final whistle, a flurry of family, friends and well-wishers calling to pass on their congratulations. In fact, Erwin Hoffer's phone went off the moment we began speaking with him outside the stadium. "It's a great feeling. Before the tournament nobody would have thought we'd be in the semi-finals," said the match-winner.
After spending 103 minutes on the bench, Hoffer struck the decisive blow within two minutes of coming on. This, after having entered the fray with less than 20 minutes remaining to fire the winner against Gambia in the Round of 16. "When you come on as sub, you give your all for the team. And when I came on, that's what I did and I scored," says the Rapid Vienna front-man, whose goal was the 1700th in the history of the U-20 finals. And the reason for having his nickname "Jimmy" shaved into the hair on his left temple? "I had that done in Austria, before the start of the tournament. Now that we've come so far I have to keep trimming it," jokes the 20-year-old goal-getter.
Euphoria at home
With an early start the next morning, the players could only celebrate their victory in moderation. Then it was off to Edmonton, where Austria take on the Czech Republic on Wednesday for a place in the final. Their northern neighbours are familiar opponents, the two sides squaring off at the UEFA Under-19 European Championship last July. On that occasion, the Czechs won 3-1, with Hoffer notching his team's consolation. This time around, Austria's supersub is hoping the outcome will be different: "Anything's possible. We've shown that we can beat anybody."
The team's progress has given Austrian football a timely boost, a year before the country co-hosts UEFA EURO 2008. The last time an Austrian side reached the last four of a FIFA World Cup was back in 1954, when they went down 6-1 to the German Federal Republic in Switzerland. Attempting to explain the significance of their current success, captain Sebastian Proedl says: "I don't think you can really get a full sense of how we're feeling right now. The whole country is watching us. There's a feeling of euphoria in Austria, which of course is a good thing with a view to next year's European Championships. We've proved that we're in very good shape at youth level."
Whatever the result on Wednesday, Austria will be back in Toronto on 22 July, be it for the play-off for third place or the final. "The stadium suits us, we like the city and above all, we've won over the fans there. We'll be back one way or another," says Proedl, who of course has the final firmly in his sights. "We're the big surprise package, the other teams respect us and we're motivated up to our eyeballs."
First on the agenda, however, are the Czech Republic. And "Jimmy" Hoffer and his team-mates are determined to write another chapter in Austria's summer fairy tale...