At first glance, Austria’s chances of securing second place in Group C of European Zone qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ seem slim; coach Marcel Koller’s team lie in third place, three points behind Sweden with two matches left to play. In fact, appearances can be deceiving, because the race for second is still wide open.
Austria goalkeeper Robert Almer explained this simple equation in an exclusive FIFA.com interview, ahead of his team’s final two matches on Friday and Tuesday: “The opportunities are still there. We’ve got to get at least a point in Sweden and then beat the Faroe Islands. Our fate is still in our hands if we win both matches.”
The situation is complicated by the fact that the Scandinavians host three-time world champions Germany in their final match. What is more, Germany will be looking to take revenge after drawing 4-4 in their first match with Sweden, having initially led 4-0.
Before that, Sweden and Austria face each other in a vital fixture. Is it likely to be a physical encounter? “It’s always assumed that you have to do that to be successful,” said Almer. “But we’ll also try to play like we did in our first match against them at home. We’ve just got to take our chances.”
Team Austria won the reverse fixture 2-1 at the start of June, and Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic was unusually quiet for the Tre Kronor that day. “We kept him under control and gave him very little room to play. That will be our approach in Sweden too," said Almer.
"If we can keep him out of the match, anything is possible. It’s a decisive game, but there are still play-off matches to play even if we take second place in the group, with some top teams waiting there. That doesn’t make things any easier.”
If the Austrians are to continue dreaming of reaching their eighth World Cup and their first since 1998, the 29-year-old will have to deliver a top performance against the Scandinavians, who are unbeaten at home and have not conceded a goal there. However, Almer has already proved that he can withstand great pressure. He performed exceptionally against Germany in a sold-out match in Munich and kept Austria from going down to an even heavier defeat (3-0).
“Germany versus Austria is always a case of big brother versus little brother. Many Austrian players now play in Germany, so the match was particularly significant for the Austrians at least.” It is curious that Austria’s hopes will rest with their 'big brother', when Germany play Sweden in Solna in the final qualifying match.
'Why shouldn’t we win in Sweden?'
For Almer, it would be a huge disappointment if Austria ultimately fail to qualify for the World Cup. After all, “every footballer dreams of playing in a World Cup, especially players from smaller nations. Our qualifying performances so far have been very strong.
"We won our home games against Sweden and Republic of Ireland, which we had to do to stay in contention, and we earned a point in Ireland, so why shouldn’t we be able to win in Sweden? However, it’s important to remember that Sweden and Ireland have been at every major event in recent years, and we haven’t.”
Despite being 29, Almar – an admirer of Edwin van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel – is by no means the most experienced member of the team. He has played 11 international games since 2011 thanks to Koller, who named Almer as his No1 immediately after taking the job as national team coach.
This was something of a gamble, given that Almer had only moved from Austria Wien to then second-division club Fortuna Dusseldorf a few months earlier, and had hardly made any appearances there.
Almer swells with pride when telling FIFA.com what it means to play in an Austrian national-team shirt. “Of course, I’m proud to have made it this far. It’s very special to play for your country, especially when you dreamed about it as a child. It gives me goosebumps, particularly when playing in front of our home fans. I’d never want to miss out on something like that.”
Almer has impressed on the international stage, justifying the trust placed in him by Koller, and by transferring to Dusseldorf’s league rivals Energie Cottbus he now wants to play regularly for his club too.
Should he catch the eye at club and international level in the coming months, Almer may realistically turn his sights to another of his greatest ambitions: a move to England's Premier League.
“I’ll wait and see whether that happens before the end of my career,” he said, as the interview concluded, but what better first step than a decisive performance for his country on Friday?