Burger: We want to play a significant role

The year 2016 is shaping up to be an excellent one for Austria’s Nina Burger. In March she celebrated victory in the Cyprus Cup with the national team on her competition debut – but the biggest highlight was yet to come.

Burger and her team-mates headed into the crucial final phase of UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 qualifying bristling with self-confidence and secured a goalless draw with Wales in their last match to reach their first major finals, having never featured at a FIFA Women’s World Cup, UEFA Women’s EURO or Women’s Olympic Football Tournament before. It is not surprising that the 28-year-old spoke of an “incredible feeling” that overwhelmed her when she realised what she had accomplished with her team.

“Five or six years ago, the prospect of qualifying for any finals still seemed so far away that it was really a big dream,” the Tulln an der Donau-born striker explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “It became an increasingly realistic goal over the past few years, and the fact that we’ve finally managed it and made history is a massive achievement and one that we’re extremely proud of. There’s already a huge sense of anticipation within the squad.”

More goals than Toni Polster Austria’s women sealed qualification with five wins, two draws and just one defeat to finish second in their group. Burger’s eight campaign goals played a major role in this success and lifted her to the top of the country’s goalscoring charts with a total of 45 goals, one more than Toni Polster’s previous record of 44. “That isn’t hugely significant to me; the most important thing is that my goals help the team,” was the modest response from a woman who has been playing club football since the age of eight.

Austria’s current form has nothing to do with chance, but is rather the result of many years of hard work. “We’ve come on enormously over the past few years, primarily thanks to our coach Dominik Thalhammer,” Burger said. “We have been going through a process and have continued to improve in specific areas. We have powerful players, work well as a team and don’t want to place any limits on ourselves, which means we’re always hungry for more,” she explained, before adding: “But there is still plenty to do, particularly when it comes to league football. The majority of our national team play in strong leagues abroad. That’s part of what has helped us to improve so significantly.

“Qualifying for the Women’s EURO probably marks another step up,” Burger continued. “By the time the finals come around, women’s football in Austria should be getting greater visibility and be more media-savvy. Plus more girls are deciding to play too, which expands the sport’s reach even further. It would also be great for its development if several well-known men’s football clubs like Rapid Vienna set up women’s teams.”

The Olympic champions await Burger, who made her senior international debut against England at the tender age of 17, believes youth development is another key factor in the continuing rise of the women’s side of the beautiful game – even if there is still further room for improvement. “There’s definitely been some progress,” she said, “starting with our National Centre for Women’s Football, which began its work in 2011. Several players have already made the step up to the senior side as a result. Training seems to start much earlier now, so players are getting a very good grounding in the game. That’s already having a noticeable impact. The U-17s and U-19s have already made it to the EUROs and now we’ve managed it too. I have no doubt that this is due in part to the fact that youth development in Austria has become more professional.”

The 28-year-old, who plays for German top-flight side SC Sand, will fulfil her next dream this Saturday when Austria meet the newly crowned Olympic champions for the first time in Regensburg. “I’m really looking forward to it,” she said. “I’ve always said that I’d love to play against Germany one day, but until now we’ve never had the opportunity at either youth or senior level. Now it’s finally happening. We’ve got several players in the Women’s Bundesliga and know some of the players in the German national team. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of fans there and that some will make the trip from Austria too. It’s not a complete coincidence that we’re playing them. Over the past few years we’ve earned the kind of reputation that makes footballing giants like Germany want to play us.”

The match will also serve as a useful yardstick for next year’s tournament – and Burger has not set any limits on what she and her team can achieve when the Women’s EURO kicks off in Utrecht on 16 July 2017. “We want to continue making progress in training and working on the details between now and the EURO,” she explained. “We don’t just want to go to the tournament – we also want to play a significant role in proceedings. A small country capable of pulling off a shock. That’s what we want to be.”