Football’s knack for springing a surprise or two is one of the reasons why the game never gets boring. In 2007, Austria raised more than a few eyebrows when they stormed to fourth place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada, thanks in no small part to Veli Kavlak.
“I think it’s the biggest and most important tournament in the world for any young player,” the midfielder told FIFA.com.
Kavlak’s career has been on an upward trajectory ever since. The 24-year-old has now made 22 senior appearances for Austria and stars for Besiktas. Five months before the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, Kavlak feels a mix of nostalgia about the memories of his side’s heroics in 2007 and pride that the next edition of the prestigious tournament will be held in the land of his forefathers.
“Turkey is so passionate about football,” said Kavlak, who became the second-youngest player to represent Rapid Vienna - after Andreas Ivanschitz - when he made his debut aged 16. "People live and breathe football."
Despite learning his trade on the streets of the Austrian capital, it is clear to see how much playing in Turkey means to Kavlak. He is that Turkish football will benefit from hosting the upcoming finals.
“In my opinion, after hosting an international tournament a country moves forward on both an organisational and sporting level,” Kavlak said, recalling the ever-increasing enthusiasm among the Canadians five and a half years ago. “Canada is not a totally footballing country. In the beginning, the attendances were normal but as the tournament built to a climax, people started to go to the stadiums a lot more because they realised it’s a beautiful and magical atmosphere.
"The football stars of the future will come to Turkey next summer. Therefore I’m sure that they will totally enjoy the tournament and its atmosphere.”
Sharing a stage with stars
The 2007 edition marked Kavlak’s breakthrough, and the hard-running midfielder looks back fondly on his side’s barnstorming displays in North America:
“I spent the most beautiful days in my football career at the U-20 World Cup in Canada. Besides, there were many talented players in that tournament, such as Alexandre Pato, Arturo Vidal, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata, Luis Suarez, Martin Fenin and Giovani Dos Santos. They’re the stars of today. Being in the same cup with them was a privilege for me.”
Following a 1-0 victory over hosts Canada and two draws against Congo and Chile, Austria beat Gambia 2-1 in the last 16 before defeating USA 2-1 after extra time in the quarter-finals. However, a 2-0 semi-final loss to Czech Republic ended their dreams, while Chile narrowly edged the match for third place 1-0.
Kavlak recalled: “It had a very big impact in Austria. We were in the headlines in the Austrian media. This generation started to make up the main body of the senior Austrian national team. And most of the players from this cup are playing in the top European leagues these days.”
For example, Sebastian Prodl, Zlatko Junuzovic (both at Werder Bremen), Erwin Hoffer (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Martin Harnik (Stuttgart) are all active in the German Bundesliga. Kavlak himself is a fan favourite at one of the biggest clubs in Istanbul. He is convinced Canada 2007 turned him into the player he is today.
“I played six games in the tournament and after that people’s confidence in me and their belief in my qualities became higher and higher," he said. "I also started to be in the public eye much more. It was a milestone in my career."
Now he intends to sit in the stands and observe the latest raw talents test themselves in their biggest outing yet on the world stage. The fact that Turkey has the chance to host the competition is not only a dream come true for the local population, but also for Kavlak. He intends to make the most of it.