- France-Austria showdown decisive in UEFA Women's EURO qualification
- Added significance for Austria's Sarah Puntigam, who plays for Montpellier
- Set to become nation's most-capped player in hunt for successive qualifications
When Austria ended up in France's group at the UEFA Women's EURO 2022 qualifying draw, many felt that at best they would be battling it out with Serbia, Kazakhstan and Northern Macedonia for second place, and that their trip to France on the penultimate matchday would be a one-sided affair.
However, with just two rounds remaining, the Austrians are neck and neck with Les Blues at the top of the table. Moreover, Austria’s midfielder Sarah Puntigam is genuinely looking forward to the away assignment that was predicted to be so problematic. Puntigam has been playing for Montpellier since 2018 and is thrilled to be competing in this top-of-the-table clash in her adopted homeland.
"It's a special moment – playing for my national team in the country where I currently live, against players I work with every day or against whom I play every weekend," she told FIFA.com. "I'm very excited, and it's going to be a special game."
Special, but above all important, since a win could enable Puntigam and her team-mates to take a huge step towards direct qualification for the continental tournament, even if the midfielder admits the task will be difficult.
"France are surely one of the best teams in the world with great individual quality in each position," she said. "We’re definitely the underdogs. They’re favourites and everyone expects them to win."
At least two out of ten
Judging by the teams’ respective positions on the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking, where France occupy third compared to their opponents’ 22nd, the debate seems lopsided. "If we played them ten times, they’d probably win most matches," admitted Puntigam.
Following her logic, that would leave at most eight possible triumphs for Les Blues, given that the French have drawn their last two games with Austria: 1-1 during the group phase of EURO 2017, and 0-0 one month ago as part of the current EURO 2022 qualifying campaign.
"Of course, we can compete with them, but we know that we need to have a good day and be at 100 per cent," said Puntigam. "We’ve made a lot of progress over the last few years, and we have good coaches who prepare us very well tactically.
"France may have better individual players, but if you work hard as a team and fight for each other, stick to your game plan, and apply yourself tactically, then you can succeed. We've seen it in our last few games."
Such has been Austria's progress in recent years that after qualifying for their first EURO in 2017, they went all the way to the semi-finals, only losing to Denmark on penalties. Coming so close to a final could have left Puntigam with regrets, but not so, apparently.
"The joy far outweighed the disappointment," she said. "It was such a happy time for us and an extraordinary experience. It was like a dream: the way we were welcomed on our return to Austria, everyone supporting us, young and old, and everyone thrilled for us... Nothing like that had ever happened before in Austria for women's football.
"Prior to that we were complete unknowns and had no media coverage, but the EURO changed all that for us. We were in every newspaper, on TV, and everyone was cheering us on. It's something unforgettable, and this joy is far more important than the disappointment of missing out on the final."
Record in sight for a role model
Logically, expectations are now higher for Irene Fuhrmann's players, but so too are ambitions.
"The goal is to qualify for the EURO again, even though we know it will be difficult," said Puntigam. "Having already reached the semi-finals, you aspire to do the same again, if not better. Furthermore, we've never played at a World Cup, so that's the next step."
On a personal level, the former Bayern Munich player is also on the verge of a landmark achievement. With 103 caps, she joined former striker Nina Burger and men's legend Andreas Herzog as the only Austrians with 100 or more appearances. Furthermore, she now only needs seven more games to surpass Burger (109) and set a new national team record.
"It means a lot and it's always an honour to represent my country, but it's never been a personal goal," said the 28-year-old. "For me, it's always been important to focus on winning each game without thinking about the next one. We'll see if I can attain the record, but it's not a priority."
In fact, Puntigam has already achieved her personal goal by becoming a role model for many young Austrian girls after her remarkable journey to the last EURO.
"It's a privilege to be an example to them and show that girls and women can be successful in football," said the midfielder, who as a kid admired David Beckham but now takes her inspiration from Toni Kroos. "When I was young, there was barely any women's football in Austria. We didn't know the players on the national team, and it would’ve been nice for me to have players to identify with.
"Today, girls have us as role models. They see us in the newspapers, on TV and are inspired by us. That's positive."