Austria’s Comeback

The Austrian national football team redeems itself in a surprise victory against France in a World Cup qualifier

It seems as if it were yesterday that red and yellow flags covered the streets of Vienna as Spain won the European Championship. However, time has passed quickly. The summer has gone by and football fans are back on their feet, ready to paint their faces in their national colors and wave their flags as teams all over the world fight for a spot in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Each continent has its own qualification; one of the most competitive is in Europe. The region is made up of 53 teams, which are divided into nine groups; the winner of each group plus the four best second place teams will progress to the World Cup – a total of 13 European teams.

Austrian fans have put aside the disappointing memory of well-played games that earned no victories in the Euro 2008. Like every other country in Europe, they live in hopes of becoming one of the lucky 13. Austria is in the seventh group with France, Serbia, Lithuania, the Faroe Islands and Romania. Their first game was against France, the World Champion of 1998 and European Champion of 2000, and definitely the favorite; not only in the game, but also in the entire group. Nonetheless, Austria, with the home field advantage, had nothing to lose, yet everything to gain.

The Austrian Football Federation was discontented with the results of the Euro ’08. Having put the nation’s pride in the hands of Josef Hickersberger, one of Austria’s best players and later coaches, the disappointment was that much greater. And so the Federation decided to make changes, hoping for better results. They called upon the coach of the Czech national team, Karel Brueckner, whose management of the Austrian national team was announced on July 28. He will lead the squad through 2009.

With a new coach and an optimistic mood, the Austrians, currently at a humble 101st in the FIFA rankings, entered the qualifications in style:  In Vienna, on September 6, they showed France who was in charge, beating them 3-1 for the first time in 38 long years.

What the win demonstrated is the importance and influence of playing football with confidence. Having witnessed an unprecedented degree of support and enthusiasm from their fans during the European Championship, the galvanized Austrians pressured the French defence.  Both Mark Janko’s toe-poke in the 8th minute and Rene Aufhauser’s tally in the 41st minute came off set-pieces, situations in which confident presence in the penalty area can create scoring chances.  Despite Sidney Govou’s threatening comeback goal for France in the 61st, Austria’s continued pressure off a corner led to a clumsy foul by Mexes in the box, and the eventual Andreas Ivanschitz penalty conversion.

Having finally broken the spell against the 2006 World Cup runners-up, the Austrians discovered that their greatest weapon in this qualification campaign is confidence and believing you can win against any team.

When Karel Brueckner said the team’s goal is to qualify for the World Cup 2010, he might just have been realistic. Now we can only wait and see.

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