“This is the second time we’ve qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the last few years and we’ve knocked out some big teams on the way. That’s the biggest recognition we can get for the work we’re doing.” The words are those of Austria coach Andreas Heraf, in conversation with FIFA.com about the significance of his side’s upcoming appearance at Colombia 2011, the country’s fourth in the youth finals.
The Austrians featured among the 16 finalists at the inaugural FIFA Youth World Championship, held in Tunisia in 1977, and again at Mexico 1983, going out in the first round on both occasions. The central Europeans did not return to the elite of world youth football until Canada 2007, when they exceeded all expectations by reaching the semis and finishing in fourth place.
“Over the last ten years we’ve made a huge commitment to training our talented youngsters, and that’s why we’re now taking part in European and world championships on a regular basis,” adds Heraf, explaining Austria’s recent improvements at youth level.
“Obviously you need some luck along the way, but if you take a close look at things, we’ve set up a structure and blueprint that we value very highly. That’s why we’ve been successful lately and that’s why we’re seeing more and more young Austrian players move abroad, which reflects all the good work the Austria Football Association is doing.”
Colombia here we come
The Austrians owe their Colombia 2011 berth to a battling performance at the 2010 UEFA European Under-19 Championship in France. After losing to England and France in their opening two group games, Heraf’s charges held their nerve and clinched a ticket to the world finals when Marco Djuricin’s last-minute goal gave them a 1-0 win over the Netherlands and the all-important third place in the group.
“We made the most of our opportunity in the European Championships and we also had the luck we needed,” comments the coach, a former Austria international and a veteran of the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™. “We scraped through but no one can say we don’t deserve to be there.”
Heraf has not seen his side in action since then, for two good reasons. Doubling up as the head of the Austria FA’s Youth Training Department, he has been busy in recent months readying the U-16 side for the UEFA Under-17 Championship qualifying round. Secondly, several members of the side he took to France last July have since kicked on, graduating to the U-21 side and in some cases even making their full international debuts.
The finishing touches
With Colombia 2011 fast approaching, however, Heraf will soon be giving his undivided attention once more to the U-20 side. “The deadline for naming the team is coming up quickly,” he explains. “I’ll be organising a training camp for the team in March although ten of the players are now with the U-21 side and they won’t be there.
"The only in-depth training we’ll have for the finals will be in the first week of June, when we’ll be taking 24 players to Marbella. That’s the only time I’ll have all the boys together before we go to Colombia. Once we’re there we’ll be looking to make the most of our time together to start the competition in the best possible shape.”
Heraf, who retired from the game in 2001 and then coached a number of clubs in Germany and his home country before taking up his current post in 2008, is hoping he can count on some star names for Austria’s South American adventure. “Aleksandar Dragovic and David Alaba are outstanding players who have broken into the senior national team,” he said.
“They’re the standard-bearers of our side and they’d really make a difference, but first of all we have to speak to their clubs (Basel and Bayern Munich respectively) and ask national coach Dietmar Constantini to release them.”
No shortage of talent
“Marco Djuricin is another key player, who’s very strong going forward,” he continues. “Christoph Knasmuellner got us through to the European Championship virtually single-handed. And then there’s Andreas Weimann and Raphael Holzhauser, two of our youngest players and tremendously talented with it.”
Yet even if the Austrians arrive in Colombia at full-strength, few are expecting them to push for honours. As Heraf explains, however, he is happy for them to be considered rank outsiders: “We won’t have the same pressure on us as the big teams like Brazil and Argentina, and that’s good.
“Our basic objective is to get past the first round, but obviously we’ll have to wait until the actual draw before we can say whether that’s a realistic goal or not. We’ll be aiming to prepare the boys for each game as it comes and we want to create the right mood in the camp. That way we can definitely spring a surprise or two. After all, we’ve got nothing to lose.”
The FIFA U-20 World Cup has proved an invaluable springboard for many a top-class player over the years, and the 43-year-old coach is also hoping his talented crop can capitalise on their opportunity to impress the world in Colombia this summer. “This U-20 World Cup could be a turning point in the careers of some of our young players. It’s the second most important competition after the World Cup proper and there’s going to be a lot of media interest.
“Playing in a World Cup or European Championship is an extremely valuable experience for gifted youngsters. It’s a unique occasion for them. They’ll get to see another country, bond with their team in a very special way and come into contact with journalists from all over the world. Make no mistake, Colombia 2011 is going to be a fantastic competition and a wonderful opportunity for the boys.”