The spirit of optimism was palpable as Austria, along with neighbours Switzerland, welcomed Europe's international elite for UEFA EURO 2008. It was hoped the continental showdown would leave a lasting legacy in the Alpine nation and, according to current national-team striker Martin Harnik, the positive effects of the tournament are beginning to bear fruit.
Austria may have bowed out at the first hurdle, but the co-hosts used the competition as a springboard in their development and now boast a fresh crop of young talents plying their trade week in, week out in Europe's top leagues. "We shouldn't belittle ourselves. Austrian football is heading in the right direction," explained Harnik in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
At 24, the VfB Stuttgart striker is already one of his country's key performers. "Look at all the Austrian players who are playing major roles at Bundesliga clubs and in the English Premier League. It has to be our aim to combine all that quality in the national team. If we can do that, we're not to be underestimated."
Currently 71st in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings, Austria is hardly a nation accustomed to success when it comes to international football. The potential is certainly there though, as Harnik and Co proved by reaching the semi-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2007 in Canada. However, it has been suggested the country lacks the necessary winning mentality at senior level.
"I wouldn't go that far," countered Harnik. "It's not as if Austrians don't have a winning mentality in general. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just look at our skiers. We definitely have a winning mentality there. We just need to translate it into football."
Brought up by his German mother and Austrian father in Hamburg, the pacey attacker knows all about 'big brother's' far more confident approach to football but insists: "The comparisons with Germany are pointless. Germany have been successful for years and have this certain kind of positive arrogance."
Harnik suggests Austria can learn more from one of their other neighbours: "We can't compete with the big sides and we never will. We have to be realistic. We shouldn't measure ourselves against teams like Germany, but we'd do well to follow the Swiss development model. They work under similar circumstances to us and I think it will do us good having a Swiss coach in Marcel Koller."
Six goals in 28 internationals and some prolific displays in the Bundesliga have made the Stuttgart striker one of the first names on Koller's teamsheet, along with 19-year-old Bayern Munich starlet David Alaba, who was recently voted Austrian Footballer of the Year. Ultimately Austria missed out on a place at UEFA EURO 2012 after finishing fourth in qualifying Group A behind Germany, Turkey and Belgium, but that disappointment has made them all the more determined to reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil.
"You could tell we lacked consistency," said Harnik, ruing his side's failure to make it to Poland/Ukraine. "Now we're in a similar group for World Cup qualifying, along with Germany and Kazakhstan again. I think we have a chance. Germany are obviously the clear favourites and should take top spot, but second place is a realistic target for us. Hopefully we'll be battling for a play-off place with Sweden and the Republic of Ireland."
Qualification would mean Austria's eighth appearance at a FIFA World Cup, their first since a group-stage exit at France 1998. Harnik, a calm and considered personality away from the pitch, makes no secret of his desire to experience the highs and lows of another major tournament, just as he did at the U-20 edition in Canada almost five years ago now: "Austria would be proud of us. It would be a wonderful experience."
The 6'1 forward certainly has the talent to spearhead his homeland onto the biggest stage. What's more, in spite of his upbringing in the relatively flat terrain of northern Germany, Harnik has also picked up the skills of his country's famous skiers: "I started going on skiing holidays in Austria with my parents from an early age, so it's safe to say I'm pretty good." Does he share his ski-ing counterparts' "winning mentality"? Only time will tell.