After Marcel Koller’s appointment as Austria coach almost five years ago, he was sneered at, criticised and questioned. Before taking the job, the former Switzerland midfielder had indifferent managerial spells in Germany with Köln and Bochum, where he was sacked in 2009.
Now he is regarded in Austria as der Nationalheld – the national hero. “It is recognition for me that we have developed something,” said Koller. Under him, Austria have soared from 77th in the Fifa rankings to inside the top 10, ahead of England and France.
For the first time, Austria have secured a place at a European Championship by qualifying. When they played at the 2008 tournament as co-hosts they lost two and drew one of their three games. Under Koller, though, everything has changed. “It is a totally different team to 2008,” said the Watford defender Sebastian Prödl. “The whole package is different and our preparation then was very different. Not only the players but also the whole setup has really advanced. Austrian football has established a brand of football.”
Austria were untouchable during qualification from Group G, finishing eight points ahead of second-placed Russia and scoring 22 goals, four of which came against Sweden last September. After securing a place at the finals with that 4-1 victory, Koller celebrated by wearing a beret and eating a baguette in his post‑match press conference.
Koller is not your typical coach at Euro 2016. The Swiss uses Facebook and Twitter to interact with Austria supporters, posting video messages, photos and a general insight to his work. “I have the feeling that fans appreciate it,” the 55-year-old said. “They get the chance to see what you do. It is a good platform to show what I actually do in the job, without the big details. This way I am reachable and I am not in some glass house. We must be reachable to the fans and not fake.”
Austria’s matches against Hungary on Tuesday and then against Portugal and Iceland will be a first taste of a major tournament for most of the squad. Austria last went to a World Cup in 1998 and went out at the group stage under Herbert Prohaska. Since then, no Austria manager has enjoyed success. Otto Baric, Hans Krankl, Josef Hickersberger and then Karel Bruckner took charge, before Bruckner’s tumultuous reign ended after eight months, with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel.Koller’s predecessor Dietmar Constantini shook things up and introduced a raw, teenage David Alaba but left after two miserable qualifying campaigns for the 2010 and 2012 tournaments.
Koller’s squad may not be dripping with experience but they are littered with quality, including Bayern Munich’s Alaba, the Austria captain and Leicester City defender Christian Fuchs, whom Koller signed for Bochum in 2008, and the Stoke winger Marko Arnautovic.
“There is no reason to doubt us,” Koller said. “But we cannot just magic tournament experience into our squad. We just want to concentrate on our football. The players from the top leagues help us with their presence and experience. For me as the coach, it is important to draw out these qualities.”
Prödl lauded the “perfect conditions at the hotel and on the pitches” despite heat at their Mallemort base, 35 miles north of Marseille, and Koller agrees there is no room for excuses. “Not only is the weather hot, but so are we. In the buildup to the first game, we certainly cannot say we have not been suitably prepared. We have been well received. It is now up to us to perform on the pitch.”
Koller insists his team will not underestimate Hungary, who have one of the weaker squads at the tournament. “There is no danger of that,” he said. “We had a good qualification campaign but that was a while ago. I am not one to live in the past. We must now get up to speed again. I think that they are very well organised, defensively they are very strong and they play well on the counterattack. We must be very concentrated and at the same time aggressive. They can hurt us.”
The renaissance under Koller has not been straightforward and his work ethic is evidently tireless. “I have no overtime clause,” said the Zurich-born coach in an interview last year. Not all of the rise should perhaps be attributed to Koller, though. Austria finished fourth at the Under-20 World Cup in Canada in 2007 and no fewer than five of those players have since established themselves as key pillars in the senior squad, including Werder Bremen’s Zlatko Junuzovic.
Koller, whose playing career was spent entirely at Grasshoppers in his hometown, is recognised as Austria’s favourite Swiss but is not concerned about how his hero status might alter, should his team fail to live up to newfound expectations. He is certainly happy, though, and this year extended his contract until 2017. “What there is in Switzerland, there is also in Austria,” said Koller. “For me, it is important to excite the fans. It’s important to pick up the people off the street and get them on board, so that they can fill the stadium and enjoy our football. I cannot guarantee a victory but the important thing is to fully deliver on the application. I am not worried about what happens if I lose it.”
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