Only England had a better record than Austria in qualifying for Euro 2016. Russia and Sweden were favourites to win Group G, but after drawing their first game at home the Austrians won nine in a row, sealing their passage to France long before the campaign ended.
This is the first time they’ve qualified, but not their first appearance: Austria were joint-hosts with Switzerland in 2008. They failed to escape their group, taking just a single point and scoring just a single goal.
This time hopes are much higher – some even dream of enjoying the best international tournament in Austria’s history. Given they finished third in the 1954 World Cup, however, that seems optimistic.
Can Austria be Euro 2016’s Leicester?
Everything seems possible now the Foxes have won the Premier League, and having a member of Claudio Ranieri's team as their captain helps Austria to think they could perhaps emulate the English club.
Christian Fuchs – whose name, aptly enough, means ‘fox’ – played a big part in Leicester's truimph after arriving from Schalke on a free transfer, and his confidence couldn't possibly be higher ahead of the show in France. Having sat on the bench for two of the team’s three 2008 European Championship games in his home country, the 30-year-old knows this could be his chance – even his only chance – to shine on the international stage. Lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy and he’d be a contender for having had the most incredible year of any footballer in the history of the game.
Fuchs isn’t the only thing Austria have in common with Leicester. They’re both teams without big stars (the brilliant David Alaba aside), stronger collectively than as individuals. Both have phenomenal dressing-room spirit. Both take their progress a game at a time, without getting ahead of themselves. Both have a very consistent line-up. And both are modest and humble, just like their coaches. In Marcel Koller the Austrians might have their own Ranieri.
What they’ve learned
The most important lesson from the past two years is that Austria must believe in themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Promising youngsters have come of age, and the national team is making fans proud again. Austria showed character as well as skill – seen, for example, in coming from behind to win away at Montenegro in stoppage time – and played attacking football with confidence.
They’re unafraid to lose, yet keep their feet on the ground. That attitude will be extremely important at the finals and Koller must not allow it to change, even if they start slowly.
Unity, stability and quality
While Austria’s greatest strength is their team spirit, which means that even difficult characters such as Marko Arnautovic work for the team (indeed, he has become one of their most popular players), they also have no significant weaknesses in any particular position. Theirs is a stable line-up with excellent mutual understanding between players, many of whom are approaching the Euros in very good form.
The defence is solid, built around Fuchs and Dynamo Kiev centre-half Aleksandar Dragovic, who would entice scouts from bigger leagues with a successful campaign in France. Alaba leads the midfield with elan alongside Julian Baumgartlinger, who had a very positive season with Mainz. Zlatko Junuzovic is creative and a free-kick expert, while targetman Marc Janko averages a goal every two games for the national team and scored 16 goals in 20 league games for Basel last season.
Martin Harnik is an important cog in the Austrian machine, their most-capped player after Fuchs, and his form is extremely worrying. The attacking midfielder had a disastrous season with Stuttgart, losing his place in the line-up, missing chances, scoring only twice and ending up relegated. An off-colour Harnik would be problematic.
In fact, Koller’s in trouble if he has to replace any of his proven warriors. The squad lacks depth and experience outside the starting XI (although Ingolstadt striker Lukas Hinterseer could make a name for himself). Even the first-teamers aren’t vastly experienced: apart from reserve right-back Gyorgy Garics, only Fuchs has played at an international tournament before.
All in all, high expectations in the homeland might be of a hindrance than a help. Are Austria ready to perform on the big stage?
Austria have one of the world’s best players in Alaba. He turns 24 during the tournament but has already won five Bundesliga titles, four German Cups and the Champions League, all with Bayern Munich, as well as Austrian Footballer of the Year five years running.
Alaba is able to perform almost anywhere on the pitch, even learning to play as a centre-back under Pep Guardiola. In Bavaria he has been most prominent as a left-back, but for Austria he is a creative box-to-box midfielder and playmaker – the ultimate link between defence and attack.
Guardiola dearly wanted to take Alaba with him to Manchester City, but Bayern made it clear that the superstar prodigy is not for sale at any price, and duly offered him a new contract lasting until 2021. Alaba has no need to worry about his club future this summer, then, and can instead concentrate fully on driving his country as far as they can go.
Many pundits were surprised when the Austrian FA decided to name a Swiss coach as Didi Constantini’s successor in 2011. Former stars – most notably Herbert Prohaska – made statements against the decision.
They were proved wrong. Koller was the best possible fit for Austria’s promising talents, and his down-to-earth attitude worked wonders with the squad. Having previously signed Fuchs for Bochum in 2008, he named him as the national team captain and the duo have worked in perfect harmony ever since.
The decision to keep faith in Koller after Austria’s failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup was of huge importance. He’s experienced at this level too, having played for Switzerland at Euro 96.