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Courage Of Convictions

Austria manager Josef Hickersberger is about to embark on the most important few weeks of his career during EURO 2008 on home soil and over the border in Switzerland. Yet some people are still not convinced by -him and his young team …
Of course he heard it. Josef Hickersberger is not deaf. And he certainly was not able to simply ignore it. Even Hickersberger, one of the calmest managers around, could not shrug his shoulders and let the entire crowd in Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium mock him and chant “Hicke out!”. “Of course it hurt,” he admits. “But it comes with the territory. Anyway, calls for the manager’s head are not just an Austrian thing … even Jurgen Klinsmann was booed by his own fans just a few months before the FIFA World Cup™. Afterwards, the whole country adored him.”
Josef Hickersberger has not exactly had it easy. His job is not easy either. When he took over some two-and-a-half years ago, Austrian football was in the doldrums. Clubs were going bust and having a torrid time in Europe, and the national team was languishing in the middle of the FIFA/ Coca-Cola World Ranking, jockeying for position around 90th place with the likes of Cuba and Armenia. “I didn’t really think about how hard it would be,” he says now. “I just wondered how long it would take us to build a team capable of holding theit own against the best in the wotld.”
Hicketsberget used his first two years for experiments, taking a look at about 50 players and trying various formations and systems while taking the rough (a 1-0 loss to Venezuela and a 2-0 defeat by Chile) with the smooth (a 3-2 win over Cote d’lvoire and a 2-1 victory over fellow EURO 2008 hosts Switzerland). 2007 was to prove a black year for Austria, however, with only a solitary victory. “It goes without saying that I wasn’t always happy with the results,” says Hickersberger, “but I look at our matches and results differently. For me, the key date is 8 June 2008.” That is when Austria will play their first match in “their” tournament.
That explains why Austria’s boss will not be affected by whistles and cat-calls from the crowd or by criticism from pundits or fellow managers. “I know that many people think it is wrong for me to be so calm and composed when so many of our fans are panicking … but I am a patient person.” He has plotted Austria’s route to the EURO and has no intention of changing it now, even though others are worried and in some cases even angry. Since taking over in 2006, Hickersberger has injected a lot of young blood into his team by introducing players that nobody had heard of before they took last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada by storm, reaching the semi-finals and winning a whole legion of new fans back home in the process. Youngsters like Sebastian Prodi, who will move to Werder Bremen after EURO 2008, Martin Harnik, Veli Kavlak and Erwin Hoffer are the figureheads of the new, fearless Austrian future, which will actually begin at the European Championship because Hickersberger is steadfastly refusing to heed constant “advice” to bring veterans such as 38-year-old Ivica Vastic, Austrian player of the year in 2007, or Didi Kuhlbauer, who at 36 is still one of the best Austrian midfielders around, back into the fold. “I don’t believe in doing something just for the sake of it. It would be a mistake for us to change our plans now,” he insists.
Hickersberger evidently enjoys working with raw, talented teenagers. He also had the courage of his convictions during his first spell in the Austrian hotseat by naming a number of inexperienced players in his squad for the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ in Italy. “We had the youngest team in the tournament,” says Hickersberger. “Most of them were still around for the 1998 World Cup in France, too.” Hickersberger had long vacated the Austria manager’s office by then, however, resigning shortly after Italia ’90 in the wake of an embarrassing 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Faroe Islands in the race to qualify for EURO ’92. That defeat saw him lumbered with the humiliating nickname of “Faroe Pepi” [Ed. Pepi is short for Josef], a burden he still has to bear even though the shame of that defeat has long since been forgotten.
The “Faroe flop” is hardly talked about any more, but the same cannot be said about Cordoba. 2008 marks the 30th anniversary of Austria’s remarkable 3-2 victory over their West German rivals at the 1978 FIFA World Cup™ in Argentina, a game that saw the entire country “go crazy” and not merely an excitable Austrian TV commentator. The final draw for EURO 2008 actually reignited Cordoba mania and even Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer is on record as saying he is looking forward to seeing Austria go head to head with Germany again in their final group match. Hickersberger was part of the Cordoba 1978 team that also featured Hans Krankl, Herbert Prohaska and Bruno Pezzey, but today he refuses to buy into the hype, insisting that: “It was a fantastic victory for us … nothing more, nothing less”.
Instead, he firmly believes that Austrian football rested on its laurels and spent too long reminiscing about glorious victories from years gone by. “Twenty years ago, we all thought that a superstar like Prohaska, Krankl or Pezzey would come along every ten years, so we didn’t invest heavily in youth development. Unfortunately, since then we haven’t found too many players of their ilk.”
It was a dilemma that Hickersberger was all too familiar with even before he accepted the job. The Bosman ruling brought about a sea change in Austrian football as most clubs moved to sign foreigners rather than concentrating on bringing their own players through the system. Up until recently, the ten-club Austrian league would often feature 100 or more foreign players and that naturally had an effect on the position of Austria manager. It took the introduction of the so-called “Austria pot” [Ed. a system that rewards clubs with TV money for focusing on home-grown talent] for clubs to sit down and rethink their strategy, thereby indirectly boosting the national team’s prospects. That will not happen overnight, however, and it is quite conceivable that it will not be Hickersberger who reaps the rewards but rather his successor. “It would
be fantastic if we could create a shock or two at the EURO,” says Hickersberger, who ever since the final draw has had to battle against what some people call another “typical Austrian trait” — the tendency to massively overestimate one’s own chances or abilities. “The comments about our group quite clearly show that we are overestimating ourselves,” insists Hickersberger. “People are saying ‘OK, we’ve got Croatia, they’re in the top ten in the world, but they’re not unbeatable’. What they are forgetting, though, is that Austria have only beaten two teams from the top ten of the FIFA world ranking since 1996.”
Josef Hickersberger is not a pessimist, he is a realist. He knows Austrian football and the Austrian mentality inside out, so he knows exactly how hard his job will be at the European Championship. “Our first match will be crucial,” he says. “Beating Croatia would give us wings. We saw with Germany in 2006 just what can happen if you win your opening match.” If that were to happen, he would not hear whistles and cat-calls in the Ernst Happel Stadium. Instead, the fans would be chanting the name of Josef “Faroe Pepi” Hickersberger. And that, too, would be typical of Austria.