When the Austrian national team trooped from the field following an extremely unlucky 2-1 defeat to Germany in their opening qualifier for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ in mid-September, dismay and frustration at falling just short of a shock result against their mighty neighbours was etched on the players’ faces.
Despite warm applause and encouraging chants from the Vienna crowd, the men in red disappeared down the tunnel at Ernst Happel Stadium with their shoulders slumped and their heads down. Their disappointment at failing to take a point or even beat the three-time world champions overshadowed what was unquestionably a fine performance.
Some four weeks later, the despondency has evaporated and pride has taken its place. “Obviously we were disappointed, but we've moved on now. We can be proud of a display which took Germany to the brink of defeat. And we'd have deserved the three points too, because we played as a team and fought back from two goals down. That was a really great job," declared Austria captain Christian Fuchs, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com.
The Austrians’ courageous display against Joachim Low’s side was no fluke, as Fuchs and company were previously undefeated since November last year when they fell away to Ukraine. That was followed by victories over Finland, Ukraine and Turkey, and a draw with Romania, returning the team to the top 50 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for the first time since February 2011 (currently 59th).
“The way we've come on is absolutely positive, and if you're playing well, you automatically gain confidence. I'm proud to be part of this team. If we keep up the good work and stay on course, I'm convinced we'll soon qualify for a major tournament," the defender capped 49 times by his country insisted.
In an ironic twist, the man recognised as the architect of the upturn in fortunes is Swiss. The trend has been steadily upwards ever since Marcel Koller stepped up to the Austria helm in November last year, as the coach has stamped his authority and ideas on a multi-faceted squad.
“He's a very positive guy and invests a lot in his work. He personally embodies the things he expects from us. Especially in the short time available when we're together as the national team, it's vital to have someone you can always look up to," explained the 26-year-old, who was promoted to captain by Koller in August and revels in the new responsibility.
“I'm very proud to captain this team, although I'd never read too much into my role. It's a great thing, but on the field you only have a marginal influence on events as captain. If we’re to get anywhere, we have to play as a unit, and that's what we're doing. We have a terrific team with every player prepared to take responsibility," the Schalke left-back said.
On Friday and then again next Tuesday, the Austrians meet Kazakhstan and rate as pre-match favourites for the first time in this qualifying competition. “We’re obviously looking for six points from the matches against Kazakhstan, but everyone knows the era when you had so-called weaker countries is over. We mustn't make the mistake of underestimating them, because Kazakhstan are capable of good football. We have to approach the game with the same focus we had against Germany," Fuchs warned.
In the face of a tough Group C including Germany, Sweden, Republic of Ireland and the Faroe Islands, maximum points from the double-header against the east Europeans would be immensely important in the race for a place in Brazil. Fuchs remains optimistic regarding his country's chances.
“I think Germany will finish top of our group. They’re number two in the world rankings, so we have to be realistic. But based on our performance against the Germans, we’re contenders for second place, in my opinion. We have nothing to fear from Sweden and Ireland," the combative captain concluded.