"It makes an unbelievable impression because it’s a completely different world. It’s simply unique." These were the words used by Austria U-17 goalkeeper Alexander Schlager to describe his feelings on his second visit to Dubai, where FIFA.com interviewed him at his team hotel.
The keeper first travelled to the United Arab Emirates at the end of August for the group stage draw, as he wanted to witness the ceremony in person and find out first hand who Team Austria would face at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2013.
The Austrian party for the tournament arrived on 7 October, and immediately began intense preparations for group stage matches against Canada, Iran and Argentina. In one sense, the current squad are here to make amends for past misfortune: the Austrians’ only previous appearance at the U-17 World Cup 16 years ago yielded three defeats, with only one goal scored and a demoralising 14 conceded. Schlager and his team-mates are utterly determined to avoid a repeat this time round.
Admirer of Cech and Chelsea
"We’ve settled in very well,” the player confidently reported. The process of acclimatisation has not been restricted to the training ground, but has instead emphasised other activities, such as visits to a traditional market and the water park in Dubai.
The aim is to use leisure pursuits to prepare the players for the special conditions in the UAE. “I really believe we can get somewhere,” the young keeper said optimistically. A few days ago, the Austrians contested a warm-up match in Dubai against African champions Cote d’Ivoire. The Europeans lost by the only goal of the game, but Schlager said it was "a very good test. We managed to create chances, and if we’d taken them the result would have been different. We’ll cut out the mistakes we made in the match."
Schlager, an avowed fan of Petr Cech and his club Chelsea, exuded determination and inner calm when he spoke to FIFA.com. These are attributes frequently associated with his idol, but the young hopeful is not averse to raising his voice in the thick of the action as he confidently marshals his defence.
These qualities, and a healthy dose of serene composure, are borne out of the ambitious young Austrian’s early experiences on the field of play: "I started out as an outfield player, so I’m confident with the ball at my feet. But I realised how much I enjoyed the position of goalkeeper and wanted to turn it into my job."
Chasing a historic victory
The player nicknamed Gassi refuses to be haunted or unnerved by the fate of his predecessor Hans-Peter Berger, who picked the ball from the back of his own net far more often than he wanted in 1997: "At the end of the day, it’s not just down to the goalkeeper but to the whole team."
True to that maxim, the Austrian game plan in a tough-looking group is to put up a united front and achieve a minimum target of a first-ever victory at the tournament, giving Austrian football a welcome shot in the arm.
The junior squad came together as a group to witness the senior side’s agonising failure to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. "We watched the [2-1] defeat to Sweden on the big screen, and we were obviously bitterly disappointed. It’s a shame we didn’t make it." The plan now is for a morale-boosting first-day win against Canada, another team with a point to prove in the UAE: the Canucks have played 15 matches at the U-17 World Cup in the past but have yet to record a victory, scoring only five goals and conceding a sobering 47.
But if Schlager has his way, the Canadians will not improve their meager goals-scored total when the sides meet at Rashid Stadium in Dubai on Saturday. Naturally, the main factor will be the Austrians’ performance as a team, but a keeper on top form will still be needed if they are to hit their target of a maiden victory at the U-17 World Cup.