Okotie: Austria have a chance
Twenty-three years ago almost to the day, Rubin Rafael Okotie was born in the Pakistani town of Karachi, hardly a place renowned for producing top-class footballers. In hindsight, the Nuremberg striker has plenty to thank his parents for after they decided to move abroad, ultimately providing him with the opportunity to begin his career as a pro.
"I was born in Pakistan but we moved to Barcelona almost straight away," said Okotie in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "All I cared about back then was football. We moved to Vienna when I was four and I joined my first club when I was six. At ten I had signed for Rapid Vienna and three years later I joined Austria Vienna."
Academy an important step
Having made the switch between old adversaries Rapid and Austria at such a young age, the son of an Austrian mother and a Nigerian father soon learned about the intensity of the Viennese inter-city rivalry. "It wasn't an easy decision to move to Austria (Vienna) back then because I was very happy at Rapid, but the facilities at their football academy won me over in the end," said the 6'2" front-man.
It proved to be the right decision. Indeed, the technically gifted striker's development during his first few years at the club was impressive to say the least. "I rose up through the youth ranks before playing in the second division with the reserves when I was 17. I made the jump into the first team in 2007 after playing at the U-20 World Cup in Canada."
Indeed, the 23-year-old still looks back on his first steps in the Austrian Bundesliga with fond memories: "I can still remember my first game as a professional. That was against SV Ried, but I remember my first goal even more clearly. It came against Red Bull Salzburg. It was a great feeling, but I had no idea how to celebrate," laughed the four-time Austrian international.
However, the 2009/10 season proved to be anything but plain sailing for Okotie, who sustained a serious knee injury in September that limited him to just seven first-team appearances. "It wasn't easy being injured," he recalled. "I was on crutches for three months and I was out for a total of seven months. When you're as young as I am, it can be difficult to cope, but my mum and my friends helped me a lot."
In spite of the injury, nine-time German champions Nuremberg came in for Okotie after becoming aware of the talented youngster's availability over the summer. "Nuremberg made a real fuss over me even though I was injured. They even helped me to find a good doctor for my knee operation."
Okotie's goals with his new employers are clear: "I want to establish myself here, perform well and score goals. Of course, competition for places is fierce and my pre-season has been hampered by an Achilles problem, but I want to be back competing again as soon as possible."
Nuremberg only managed to secure their top-flight status via the relegation play-offs at the end of last season, and the squad are now keen to put that behind them with a solid showing in the Bundesliga this time round. "We've set some ambitious goals for the season ahead. First of all, we want to perform better than we did last season and secure safety as quickly as possible."
Road to Poland and Ukraine
Okotie is also hoping to establish himself on the international scene having previously represented his adopted homeland at both the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in 2006 and the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada a year later. The Austria marksman went on to make his debut for the senior national team in November 2008.
"I played my first match for the national team under Karel Bruckner against Turkey. I still remember it very well. It's always been an honour for me to represent my country. The current coach, Dietmar Constantini, has also been very supportive of me and he's always in touch. Still, I'm focusing all my attentions on Nuremberg at the moment. I want to play as well as I can here to make sure I'm in contention for the national side."
After watching UEFA EURO 2008 from the stands, Okotie is now hoping Austria can qualify for EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. However, after being drawn in a group alongside Germany, Turkey, Belgium, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, Constantini's charges have their work cut out.
"We didn't get the kindest of draws, that's for sure, but we still have a chance of qualifying for the EURO," said the forward as the interview drew to a close. "But this generation of players has plenty of quality. We need to believe in our strengths and give it our all, then we'll have to wait and see if we make it to the finals."