Tuesday, October 16, 2007

High On A Hill Was A Lonely Goatherd

Whilst the rest of Europe is busily going about the business of tying to qualify for next year's European Championship finals, the two host nations are making their preparations for the finals next summer. Whilst Switzerland appear to be making decent progress, though, Austria are struggling to find any sort of rhythm and are in danger of becoming that rarest of creatures - a host nation that fails to pick up a single point in the tournament that they are hosting. None of this would be a massive cause for concern, were it not for the fact that both of the hosts have already been named as seeds in the draw for the finals (along with the holders, Greece), which is to be held in Lucerne on the 2nd of December. The fourth seeded place goes to the qualifiers with the best record, which is likely to be Germany.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Germans will be pretty pleased with this, but it has brought about the wrath of German general manager Oliver Bierhoff, who has described the seeding as a "planning error". Being seeded for the tournament is, in all honesty, not quite the plum draw that one might expect, and this is largely because of who the hosts and holders are. Switzerland, Greece and Austria being seeded means that the likes of France, England (suspend your disbelief for a second, there), Portugal, Italy, Spain and Sweden will be pushed further down the draw, meaning that there will almost certainly be a "Group Of Death" in (should they maintain their place as the qualifiers with the best record) Germany's group, with other teams that are better than their seeding would suggest, whose ranking has artificially dropped because of the positioning of three moderate teams as seeded nations.

As the article in The Guardian above suggests, this is causing something bordering upon panic in Austria. The Austrians have never qualified for the European Championship finals, and have only qualified for the World Cup finals twice since 1982, making somewhat ignominious exits on both occasions. They are currently placed as the number 85 team in FIFA's rankings and, whilst this isn't always a completely accurate indicator of a team's abilities, the fact that they haven't won in nine matches probably is - especially when you consider that those nine countries have been Switzerland, Chile, Japan, Czech Republic, Paraguay, Scotland, France, Ghana and Malta. There are a couple of decent teams in that list, but seven of these nine matches are at home, and it's probably fair to say that, with no competitive matches to play, they are taking their friendly matches more seriously than their opponents at the moment. A quick look at the current Austrian squad shows a distinct lack of household names (former Arsenal reserve goalkeeper Alex Manninger is the only instantly recognisable name), whilst only one of their squad has managed double figures in terms of goals for them (Rene Aufhauser of Red Bull Salzburg has managed ten goals in forty-five appearances).

It's all a far cry from a couple of the Austrian teams of the past. The 1930s "Wunderteam" made the semi-finals of the World Cup and becoming the first overseas team to beat Scotland, before being submerged into a united team with Germany for the 1938 World Cup finals - a competition that Austria alone would have been amongst the favourites for. In the 1970s they became a power of sorts again, knocking West Germany out of the second group stages of the 1978 World Cup by beating them 3-2 in Cordoba after having, alongside Brazil, seen off Spain and Sweden in the first round. Four years later, they were involved in something less savoury when they beat West Germany 1-0 in Gijon to knock out Algeria in the first round, before being knocked out by France in the second round. Their record in more recent times has been more modest still - in 1990 they finished twice Italy and Czechoslovakia, and in 1998 Italy and Chile put them out at the same stage.

The Germans have been accused of being "arrogant" by some in the Austrian media, but there is a logic to what they are saying. The hosts of a tournament are rewarded with automatic qualification, and I don't think that anyone will argue with the fact that, given the fact that they now have to qualify to defend their crown, Greece deserve a seeded place. The whole point of seeding, however, is to prevent the best teams in the tournament from playing against each other too early on and to ensure that the groups are, where possible, evenly matched. UEFA's decision to stray from this principle does seem to be somewhat misguided.

Ballhype: hype it up!


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