In any review of last season’s Austrian Bundesliga, one team stands out above all others. And it’s not champions Red Bull Salzburg, but a small club from the east called Admira Wacker Modling. The promoted side had a sensational campaign and led the standings for several weeks before finishing in third, a position which earned them a place in the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds.
Dietmar Kuhbauer is the mastermind behind the success. The former Austria international has been in charge at Admira since April 2010. In his first term, he won the second division title and promotion to the Bundesliga, where they continued to flourish. With two wins and one defeat after three games this campaign, they appear to have seamlessly picked up where they left off.
“The second season is often a lot harder," Kuhbauer told FIFA.com. "Every opponent knows you and won’t take you as lightly as they did before. The personal pressure increases, the club’s expectations are greater, as are those of the fans. Accordingly, the pressure on the players also increases.
“My aim is to have a good season, but that doesn’t automatically mean that we qualify for Europe again. It would be a mistake to say that, as we have a small budget and other clubs are a long way above us. We want to aim high and maybe at the end we can finish in fifth. That would be good. But I’d have nothing against it all working out again.”
With an average age of just 24, Admira have one of the youngest squads in the Bundesliga and one that only possesses limited international experience. That is why the over-30s, like Patrik Jezek and Gernot Plassnegger, play such an important role for Kuhbauer.
He explained: “Age doesn’t always mean they have experience. They are very strong characters and very good with the young players. That’s an enormous advantage for us. They help the young guys and have the necessary quality to stamp their authority on a game. It’s a good combination. It works perfectly for us and long may it continue.”
Kuhbauer upbeat on Austria's 2014 hopes
As a player, Kuhbauer turned out for Admira, Rapid Vienna, Real Sociedad and Wolfsburg among others, so it is hardly surprising that he still follows the German Bundesliga closely.
“Of course the German league is very interesting," the 41-year-old said. "A lot of Austrians play there and are doing well. It would be unproductive of me as an Austrian not to watch the German league, especially as it’s booming and they’re playing really good football - just look at Dortmund. I’m still a fan of the German Bundesliga.”
Kuhbauer made 55 international appearances for Austria and played in the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ in France. Fourteen years later, the current national side is about to jostle with Germany, Sweden, Republic of Ireland, Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan in qualifying Group C for a place at Brazil 2014.
“We don’t need to talk much about the Germans," Kuhbauer said. "They would need to have a disaster not to qualify. They have the best players, which we saw again recently. In spite of everything, I believe it is perfectly feasible for us to finish second if we continue to play as we have at times and everything goes well. I believe 100 per cent in this team.”
National coach Marcel Koller has Kuhbauer’s full backing in his quest to reach the FIFA World Cup in Brazil: “Being in charge of the national side is the hardest role you can have as a coach. After every game you have eight million people who knew better than the coach himself.
“He’s on the right track with this team. One thing I’ve noticed is that he is very communicative with the coaches. We’re always in contact. That’s why he gets the necessary support from me and the other coaches, so that together one day we are able to reach a major tournament again.”
Next stop Prague
However, Kuhbauer is devoting all his efforts to Admira’s Bundesliga and Europa League campaigns. In the third qualifying round of the latter, they lost 2-0 to Sparta Prague.
On Thursday, Kuhbauer’s charges face an uphill battle in the return leg in Czech Republic. But as Luxembourgian amateurs Dudelange showed in knocking Red Bull Salzburg out of the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds, anything is possible in football. And in recent months, Admira Wacker Modling have already proven their ability to pull off a surprise.