The Austrian Becks prepares to meet real thing

Judging by comments in the Austrian media yesterday, the biggest moment tonight for Andreas Ivanschitz, the national captain, will come shortly before kick-off when he shakes hands with David Beckham. It is hard to find anyone here who expects anything other than a comprehensive victory for England in the opening match of their World Cup qualifying group.

Ivanschitz, a 20-year-old midfielder who plays for Rapid Vienna, is the brightest light in a young and inexperienced Austrian team. He made his international debut only 18 months ago, yet by the end of last year he had become Austria's youngest ever captain, even though he had not captained his club side. Given his ability, status in the national team and photogenic good looks, it was no surprise when the comparisons with Beckham started.

In one of the weekly sports magazines published here this week, Ivanschitz gives his views on Beckham's hairstyle, tattoos, lifestyle and sex appeal. As tonight's game approaches, however, Austria's captain has been trying - sometimes in vain - to switch attention to matters on the pitch.

While Austrian journalists appear to dismiss their team's chances and are more anxious to talk to Ivanschitz about shaking hands with Beckham before the game and swapping shirts afterwards, the player himself has been one of the few optimistic voices within the camp.

"I'm looking forward to the game, not to shaking hands," he said. "Those 10 seconds are nothing compared with the 90 minutes that follow. If we leave the pitch as winners then I'll be happy to swap shirts with him.

"Why is everyone in Austria so negative? We mustn't go into the game with a negative approach. We have to be positive. We're a young team but we're getting to know each other better. Everybody wants to show what they can do on the European stage. The challenge is gigantic and we're ready for it."

Not that Ivanschitz is anything other than flattered at the comparisons with Beckham. "In the next 30 years there won't be another player like him - he's a fashion icon and a great footballer," he said. "I'd like to be an idol for young people in the way he is, but not at the price he's paid in terms of the invasion of his privacy."

Ivanschitz's own idol is Francesco Totti. Although the Austrian captain has scored only once for the national team, he likes to get forward. He has made a big impact at club level and was Austria's footballer of the year last year.

But while Ivanschitz was sounding a positive note, some of his colleagues - and indeed Hans Krankl, the national coach - were hardly talking themselves up. Emanuel Pogatetz, the left-back, said: "There's a lot of scepticism about the team here because our recent results haven't been that good, particularly the defeat against Germany in our last game. And people here think England are better than Germany. We think England will win this group, but our target is second place. We might be able to beat England in a one-off match but England should win the group."

Krankl added: "We're fighting for second place with all the other teams. The big problem for us is that we're a very inexperienced side."

However, the Austrians are taking hope from the recent good showing by AK Graz against Liverpool in Europe. Gernot Sick, one of the seven players in the Austrian squad who play for AK Graz, said: "If an Austrian club side can do well against an English club side then maybe we can do the same at national level."

Comments