This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
This is only the second time Austria have qualified for a European Championship (they co-hosted in 2008 so that doesn’t count). In 2016 a preview would have talked about a country regaining its long-lost love for football, about expectations and the thrilling beauty of the underdog as well as the joy of seeing children in the park wearing Austria kits instead of the ubiquitous Bayern and Barcelona ones.
Five years later, though, there is a very different feeling in the country. Despite the fact that Austria had a consistent qualifying campaign, finishing second behind Poland, there is very little excitement. Why is that? Well, Austria did all their homework and beat the teams they should have but struggled when they faced equals or better teams. There were no surprises and very little joy.
As in many other countries there is a saying in Austria: “Früher war alles besser” – “everything was better before”. It’s an easy way out, evoking warm, cosy memories of the past and letting nostalgia dictate the present and future. The strange thing is that Austria has arguably never had a better lineup than we do at the moment.
Led by Bayern Munich’s David Alaba, the coach Franco Foda has an impressive mix of players to choose from. Some have already proved their quality (Marko Arnautovic, Julian Baumgartlinger, Aleksandar Dragovic and Andreas Ulmer), others are in their prime (Marcel Sabitzer, Stefan Lainer, Martin Hinteregger and Valentino Lazaro) and some of the young prospects have an outstanding season at their clubs (Christoph Baumgartner, Sasa Kalajdzic, Philipp Lienhart).
Add to that the fact that the coach, Franco Foda, is the best we have had – at least results-wise – and it is natural to wonder what the problem is. The coach and his team have been criticised for being too negative and results-orientated. The captain, Julian Baumgartlinger once said that in the past Austria had “died virtuously” but that now they wanted to avoid that.
That’s all fine when results are OK, but after a rocky start to World Cup qualifying, including a 4-0 home defeat to Denmark, Foda said: “After such a result we have to rethink some things,” before adding: “but you also have to consider the past three years.“ In other words: Früher war alles besser.
This will be a very interesting tournament for Austria. Will the quality of the players shine through and cause a surprise at the tournament? If so, we may after all end up talking about the thrilling beauty of the underdog and see children in the park with Arnautovic, Alaba and Kalajdzic on their shirts.
Born in Mainz, France Foda had a long and distinguished career and won two caps for West Germany before moving to Austria in 1997 to play for Sturm Graz. He has remained in the country ever since – apart from a short spell in charge of Kaiserslautern – and became national team coach in 2017. He recently told Neue what he liked the most when he arrived in Austria. “That the kids at school always took their shoes off and put slippers on and that their coats had to be put neatly into wardrobes. My wife and I really liked that because it has to do with cleanliness, discipline and order. That was not the same in Germany.”
David Alaba. The departing Bayern Munich player is in a league of his own when it comes to popularity but he can also split opinion when it comes to where he should play for the national team – at left-back or in midfield. One area is undisputed: that he is a world ambassador for Austrian, and more specifically Viennese, humour. Alaba has never adapted his language to “German” German, and often drops ultra-Viennese sayings, with hilarious results. One of countless examples came during a post-match interview with Franck Ribéry when he suddenly turned to Ribery and said “Schau net so bled herst”, meaning “what’s that stupid look on your face man”.
Happy for a year’s delay
Sasa Kalajdzic. The Stuttgart striker had a fantastic season for his club, making him Foda’s first choice up front for the Euros. By contrast, a year ago Kalajdzic had just recovered from a serious injury and only made his debut for Stuttgart at the end of May 2020.
What the fans sing
Reinhard Fendrich’s I Am from Austria. A dramatic and emotive yet very cheesy tune from the Austropop veteran Reinhard Fendrich, which had been established as an unofficial national anthem. Whenever it is played in a stadium people sway and sing along with the lines about Austria’s glorious past, ice melting from a glacier, children’s tears and why we are jealous of storks. Since traditions can’t be rebooted and Falco is long dead, it will most likely stick around for the future.
What the fans say
“Alaba unauffällig“ – “Alaba not to be seen“ (or “inconspicuous“), meaning that Alaba again didn’t meet expectations
“Eh Wurscht“ – “Anyway“
“Oida“ – A hard one to translate, in its original meaning it’s “old man”. A very versatile expression used to express everything from surprise to anger to excitement to disappointment to joy.
“Foda raus!“ – “Foda out!“
When two French doctors proposed testing covid vaccines in Africa in April 2020, David Alaba spoke out. The Bayern player wrote on Twitter: “Trying a #Covid19 vaccine in Africa??? Are these two guys doctors or clowns? This is a kind of racism I could never imagine. Disgraceful and unacceptable! We all have to stand together and work hand in hand to fight this virus.”
Andreas Hagenauer writes for Der Standard.
Follow him on Twitter @AndHagen.
For a profile of Austria’s Sasa Kalajdzic click here.