Before Austria's friendly against Germany in February the organisers were giving out jigsaws to those entering the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna. It seemed a perfect, if unwitting, metaphor as the Euro 2008 co-hosts prepared for June. Unfortunately, the most ill-fitting piece in the puzzle is their national team, for where do a side ranked 101st by Fifa fit in with the other 15 countries?
Crude though the system may be, and it negatively affects the hosts most of all due to the lower points given to friendlies, 14 of the 16 countries in the tournament are in the top 30. Switzerland, the other hosts, squeeze inside the top 50. However, Austria sit just above Tanzania and Benin, and just below Algeria.
Austria have not been to the finals of a tournament since the 1998 World Cup in France, where they failed to get out of their group. A more recent form guide saw them finish third in their last World Cup qualifying section, which included England and Poland. The only glimmer of hope has been fourth place at last summer's Under-20 World Cup and some of thoseplayers, such as the def-ender Sebastian Prodl, have graduated to the senior side.
They go into their opening fixture against Croatia in Vienna a week today with only one win in 15 games. Given that their group also contains Poland and their closest rivals, Germany, there is the possibility of them matching Belgium's embarrassment from eight years ago, when the Euro 2000 co-hosts failed to get out of their group.
Austria have known humiliation before, with their 1-0 defeat by the Faroe Islands in a qualifier for Euro 92 one of the great inter-national upsets of all time. Their coach on that infamous occasion was Josef Hickersberger, yet despite that blot on his CV he came back for a second spell in charge, taking over for the build-up to Euro 2008.
Laid-back and able to joke with the media, the 60-year-old is not making any bold predictions for his country. Not that he is averse to stirring things up, as he did before that friendly against Germany, when he said: "It would be the worst thing that could happen if we win." His worst fears were not realised, though Austria unsettled the Germans before losing 3-0.
Looking at this tournament he says: "We are total outsiders. To reach the quarter-finals would be a massive success." You realise the truth of that, as his squad only contains one player from the Premier League – Emanuel Pogatetz of Middlesbrough – and two from Germany. The majority still play in the uncompetitive Austrian Bundes-liga. He has also surpris-ingly recalled the 38-year-old forward Ivica Vastic, a remnant from France 98.
Pogatetz, 25, is the most public face in Austria's squad, and he will lend some strength to a young defence. Happily for his country, he is now back in the fold after having a "Roy Keane" moment – Pogatetz criticised the captain, Andreas Ivanschitz, and the national team set-up in 2006, spending almost 18 months on the sidelines before his comeback in February.
He now says: "It is a good feeling to be back after so long out. In our group, Croatia and Germany will fight for first place. We are outsiders and we know we have to improve." But the chances of fitting into that jigsaw look a long way off.Reuse content