Ever the pessimists?

It's been a long time since Austria had a national team worth shouting about, but Mark Brownlow believes the country are looking forward to the World Cup

Until recently, your typical Austrian fan would approach an upcoming international fixture with an air of subdued pessimism. Strong opponents were “too good for us”, while weaker opponents might always turn out to be “another Faroes”. About halfway through the World Cup qualification, as Austria’s chances grew rosier with each passing game, the sweeper in my Sunday league team whispered to me confidentially: “I hope we don’t qualify – we’ll only embarrass ourselves."

This fear of public humiliation has been ever present since the 1990 European Championship defeat against the Faroe Islands (current population 43,700), but the last few months have seen a remarkable turnaround in attitudes – guarded optimism has broken out. For the first time in a long time, fans are looking forward, not back.

For an outsider, it’s easy to see why the typical fan might have developed a healthy cynicism about football in Austria. Outside the top four or five clubs, playing standards in the domestic league are dire. To the north there is the German Bundesliga, to the South Serie A, so local clubs can’t help but suffer in comparison. Club squads seem to change rapidly, as top players fall to the lure of the Deutschmark, and a steady stream of east Europeans use Austria as a springboard to better things. Even the club names show no sense of constancy, often changing to fit the needs of a new sponsor or merger. Stabil Sturm Graz beat Baumit Admira Wacker 3-1 in the 1996 Magnofit (FA) Cup final – the same game today would take place between Puntigamer Sturm Graz and VfB Admira Wacker Modling.

Internationally, the situation has not been much better. You have to go back to the 1978 World Cup finals to find the last bit of Austrian glory. A 3-2 victory against the Germans gave striker Hans Krankl (who now has his own late-night radio show) the kind of status normally enjoyed by the Pope and former Kaisers.

So why the change in attitudes now? After all, World Cup qualification itself is nothing new – Austria also made it to the 1982 and 1990 finals. There seems to be general agreement that the catalyst of change has been the attitude and spirit of the national squad, rather than the results themselves.

This was most evident at the key ‘winner takes all’ qualifying match at home to Sweden in September. It was the kind of blood and guts affair not normally associated with meetings of two mild-mannered social democracies. Former Austrian teams might have folded under the pressure, but this one kept going and fought their way to a deserved 1-0 win, despite being a man down for most of the second-half.

Afterwards, journalists and fans were using words like “will to win”, and “dogged determination” – daily vocabulary for British supporters, but a whole new language in Austria. The spirit and resilience in the team has transmitted itself to the terraces. Instead of the whistles and jeers evident during the 0-0 qualifying opener against Scotland, the longer it stayed 0-0 against Sweden, the louder the support seemed to get.

As a neutral observer at the game, I was more than happy with the result. It served the Swedes right for being so damned cocky after the group draw back in 1995 (thereby breaking the golden rule about underestimating the opposition). More importantly, the Austrian manager Herbert Prohaska’s choice of garish yellow tie deserves the kind of global TV exposure that only World Cup qualification can guarantee.

Ironically, the exodus of star players from the domestic league has helped turn things around for the national team. While fans have mourned the loss of players like Toni Polster (Cologne), Andreas Herzog (Bremen), Dietmar Kühbauer (Real Sociedad) and Michael Konsel (Roma), these same players have brought international experience and a new self-confidence into the national team. Prohaska has been able to combine their talents with those of local players without any hint of acrimony or jealousy in the squad.

Captain and striker Polster is considered the most influential player both on and off the pitch. After a patchy start to his international career he was the boo-boy of the nation. But his honesty and humour (not to mention a lot of goals) has won over media, fans and players alike. Even his truly awful live rendition of What A Day We’ve Had a few minutes later couldn’t dampen the fans enthusiasm (since his guest appearance on a song written in his honour by the German all-girl rock group, Die Fabulösen Thekenschlampen – ‘the fabulous bar sluts’ – Polster has convinced himself that he can sing).

The only downer for the team at the moment is that the wave of optimism they have unleashed could backfire on them. Immediately after qualification, success in the finals was defined as just being there.

Journalists, still celebrating their all-expenses paid trips to France this summer, have now started talking about reaching the second round as a realistic goal (Austria play Italy, Chile and Cameroon in the group matches). Some of my more optimistic friends have even set their sights on third place (beating Germany in the play-off).

If the team doesn’t match up to expectations, then the old cynicism could start to creep in, and lots of potential Faroes will once again start springing up across eastern Europe. Still, at least my sweeper friend has cheered up a bit – at least until the spring season starts (we’re in the relegation play-offs).

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month