Erwin Hoffer was just 17 when he made his professional debut in Austria. That was back in 2004, and the promising youngster is a full-grown man these days. His nose for goal took him to Serie A giants Napoli, and he spent last season out on loan to German Bundesliga outfit Kaiserslautern, a deal which has worked out well for all the parties involved.
"Erwin is a very quick striker, who’s scored a lot of goals at a very young age,” commented Kaiserslautern chairman Stefan Kuntz, when announcing the loan capture last summer. "We’re banking on these qualities, and we’re hoping to see plenty of that ability."
Kuntz’ optimism turned out to be fully justified. Hoffer bounced back from a disappointing season in the Italian top flight with far more energy and gusto than some cynics had feared. He finished the 2010/11 campaign as the Red Devils’ second-top scorer, playing a vital role in the promoted club’s successful attempt to avoid the drop in their first season back in the Bundesliga.
"It was a very good season for us and we worked well together as a team,” Hoffer told FIFA.com. "When I was given the chance, I showed I can be a valuable member of the side."
Many of his best moves and goals last term reawakened memories of the 20-year-old hopeful who first burst into the international limelight at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2007 in Canada. Hoffer starred and scored three goals as the Austrians achieved a hugely creditable fourth place finish.
The centre-forward has now made significant progress for his senior national team too. Jimmy, as he is nicknamed by his coaches and team-mates in a reference to US union boss Jimmy Hoffa, has been a fixture in the full national squad for almost exactly four years, and is now looking forward to a reunion with old foes Germany. The three-time world champions are due in Vienna on Friday in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying.
"The match against Germany is massive for us. We urgently need all three points, or it’ll be extremely tight in terms of qualifying for the EURO," said Hoffer. "I’m expecting a full stadium, our terrific crowd, a breathtaking atmosphere and an exciting game against the Germans. We’ll do everything we can to give our supporters something to cheer and keep alive our slim chance of making the EURO.”
The slightly-built striker has appeared in four of his country’s five qualifying fixtures to date, scoring once. However, that goal came back in September 2010, almost as long ago as the last qualifying victory recorded by the side currently lying a distinctly modest 74th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
"Our qualifying campaign started well and we quickly got up to six points," he said. "We were especially good away to Belgium [in a 4-4 draw], but we turned in two poor performances after that and dropped ourselves into trouble. Obviously, there’s enormous pressure on us now. We need points, because we can still catch the Belgians for second place."
However, the nation lying fourth in the table now entertain the runaway leaders, who have maximum points from five matches and have scored 17 goals to just one against. The Germans look unbeatable, but Hoffer and Co refuse to be overawed. "For our country and all our fans, any game against Germany is obviously a bit special," he said. "There’s always a full house, and I’m sure the crowd will get right behind us. We want the three points."
Aiming for the play-offs
Austria certainly need a win in front of their home support if they are to retain any realistic chance of a place in Poland and Ukraine. However, in the event coach Dietmar Constantini and his side fall to a third consecutive defeat, they will struggle even to achieve their relatively modest qualifying ambitions.
"The play-offs were our target right from the start. Our dream is to finish second in the group," said a confident Hoffer as the conversation concluded. "We want to make our dream happen, as a reward for our fans, and for ourselves after all our hard work. It's a big ask, but it’s still within reach and within the bounds of possibility.”