Restoring the Glory
Austria’s coach Marcel Koller explains their first tournament qualification in 18 years
When the Swiss coach Marcel Koller was appointed Austria manager in October 2011, there was widespread scepticism. He had taken St Gallen and Grasshoppers to the Swiss title, but the most recent of those successes had come in 2003, since when he’d done nothing more than lead Bochum into the Bundesliga. When Koller took over, Austria were 70th in the Fifa rankings. They’ve since climbed into the top 20 and have guaranteed their place at Euro 2016. He’s transformed one of Europe’s great underachievers into a winning team that plays attractive football.
When you were a player and later a coach in Switzerland and Germany, what was your impression of Austrian football?
I scored my first goal for the [Switzerland] national team against Austria, past Franz Wohlfahrt, who until recently was my goalkeeping coach. I knew that Austria always had very good players in the past, like Herbert Prohaska. More recently I noticed that they had a fine national team and after I was offered the Austria job, I gathered information to see if this project could work out well.
Austrian football has a great tradition, with successes of the Wunderteam in the 1930, then in the 1950s, and to a certain extent in the 1970s. However, over the past 30 years there was a big decline. What happened?
It’s difficult to say. To be honest, I’d never really looked into why things hadn’t gone so well for Austrian football and I also think that it’s not my job to talk about it. For me it was important to analyse the current state of things before I agreed to take the job, to convince myself about the potential of this team and about the prospects of achieving progress with those players, to see if they could play according to my philosophy. For the time being, things have worked out well and it looks as though I made the right decision.
After you received the offer to take over the Austria national team, what was your first thought?
I thought that it was an interesting job and I wanted to check whether the players had quality. I was wondering if my ideas about football were realisable with those players.
Austria have failed to qualify for five major tournaments in a row. Apart from Euro 2008, when Austria were a co-host, their last participation at a major tournament was at the World Cup in France in 1998. You were taking over an underdog: was that an additional motivation – the chance to restore past glories?
No, not really. It’s always difficult to predict how things will work out. I know how to reach the players. I know how I like to train and what my ideas look like, how I can transfer those ideas to the players. But you can’t know in advance if or how everything will click, because there can be many obstacles. Therefore, first you have to start working and at first you don’t know if the players will respond, if they can process everything you ask them to do. Basically at the beginning everything is theory, while the praxis is much more difficult – to get there where we are actually now. For now everything in functioning well and our aim is to continue like that.
How did it go in the first months? What did you discover, diagnose and what was your plan to progress?
At first it was a bit difficult, because it was the first time that I’d worked as national coach. I had to develop our project although I only had the players with me for a short time. We had our first game in November 2011 [a 2-1 defeat in friendly away to Ukraine] and then my next contact with the players wasn’t until February 2012 [a 3-1 win over Finland] and then in late May, early June [3-2 against Ukraine]. You have to develop things in theory and travel to the players. I made many trips, visiting the players at their clubs. I had talks with the players. I had to transmit my philosophy to them and I wanted to do this as quickly as possible. The only way to do it was to travel around and visit the players. At the same time I followed league games, both in Austria and in foreign leagues where national team players were.
At the beginning it was obvious that many people, many fans were moaning, that they were always unhappy about something, always quick to criticise. I took it in my own way. Basically I’m very positive and I didn’t hesitate to talk to people who moaned. I put many things through a filter, but I also tried to see what could be useful from all those opinions and remarks. I noticed that it took a year before those things disappeared. I noticed that nobody moaned any more. Instead, when I was on the street or in stadiums, people greeted me in a friendly way and asked for pictures and autographs. They no longer said, “This and that is bad, you have to do this and that.” Instead everybody was giving me thumbs up, everybody said, “It’s super” and “Keep going.”
Do you think that one could say that you took on the job without any great risk, that you were in a win-win situation? If Austria again failed to qualify, it wouldn’t have been anything new, but if you did qualify, it would be regarded as a great achievement?
Well, I see that a bit differently. After all, we did not qualify for the World Cup [in 2014], even though we were close to reaching the play-off. Back then the Austrian football federation (ÖFB) could have said, “Okay, we’ll try another coach.” So, I don’t think that it was a win-win situation. However, the ÖFB and I agreed to continue together. That was important, because I said back then that two years is too short a period for a national coach to implement his ideas. The players and I needed more time to train together, I needed more time to transmit our tactics to them. I always said that I needed more time with the national team to develop things. Well, now the fruits of our joint work are there and we hope that it will stay like that.
What is your coaching philosophy?
Away from the pitch, I think that there needs to be respect and decency, to have a good relationship. And if there is not a good relationship, to tackle the problem, to talk about it and to try to sort it out. On the pitch I like my team to be active. I don’t like to sit back and wait for the opponent to make a mistake. I want to participate actively in the game, and that also means when we don’t have the ball. On the one hand to try to get back possession as quickly as possible and on the other hand, when we have the ball, I want us to try to play football – with a lot of technique, a lot of running and a lot of intensity to impose our offensive play.
Did it bother you that at first a lot of people didn’t accept you?
No, it didn’t bother me. Because I knew that most of them didn’t know me well. They just quickly trumpeted their views, maybe without thinking too much about it. Perhaps some of them had individual agendas. But I knew that I had to start my work and I was convinced that with those players I could have success. And that’s more important than being unhappy about somebody’s quotes.
Since then, all of them have apologised: Herbert Prohaska, Hans Krankl, Toni Polster… All of them praised your work in the highest terms. What can you say about that? Did they also apologise personally?
[Laughs]. No, not all of them have apologised. But that’s irrelevant. Prohaska [a former player who is the main pundit on Austrian national TV] apologised through the media. He said that he made a mistake, that it was a wrong judgment. But that’s not an issue. It doesn’t bother me and it won’t be a burden for me.
Not only in Austria but also elsewhere, some people say that the national team is a national affair and that it’s not ideal to have a foreign coach. What do you make of it?
I have an open mind about that. I remember that we in Switzerland at one point had a long period when we didn’t qualify for major tournaments. I was a player at that time and then we had foreign coaches with the national team. Firstly Uli Stielike, who made a big contribution to Switzerland making a step forward. Then [for USA 94] with Roy Hodgson we qualified for the first time for 28 years. So, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad to have a foreigner as national coach. He must be a good coach – that’s the decisive factor, not his nationality.
What about the rivalry between neighbours Switzerland and Austria? In alpine skiing it’s huge. What about football?
Well, here and there maybe there’s the odd bit of teasing, especially in western Austria near the Swiss border. In football in recent years the Austria national team was usually behind Switzerland, but we are now trying to tickle them a little bit and to overtake them.
During your career as player you had two successful qualifying campaigns with Switzerland [for USA 94 and Euro 96]. Did that experience play a role in your work with the Austria national team? Were you able to transmit something from your own experiences to your players?
No, I wouldn’t say that this played a role. Of course, the experiences one collects as player are valuable for a coaching career. But when you are a player, you are not that deeply involved in the whole process of what the coach is doing. As player you arrive in the national team and everything is set up. You don’t have to worry about anything else, but to try to put in your best performance for the team. I was very happy to be part of the team at Euro 96 [Koller missed World Cup USA 94 through an injury], because I knew that afterwards I would retire from international football and it was a really beautiful experience to play at a major tournament.
It’s an eternal question for national coaches whether they should select players who are in good form, who are regulars at their clubs, or stick to a core of players, build good team-play, even if that means using players with little or no playing time. You’ve trusted some players who were not regulars at their clubs. What’s your argument for that?
I think that this is an individual decision. It depends on how national coaches look at that question. For me the most important thing is that I have to be convinced about the football qualities a player has. If that player in his foreign club is not always playing, because of a lot of competition in that squad, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is not in good form. We keep such players in the national team, because we know their quality and because we know that they can help us. That’s why we selected them in the first place. Of course it’s an advantage if a player has lot of playing time at his club, if he’s at full rhythm all the time, if he has the 90 minutes in his legs, because sometimes you notice lack of power after 60 or 70 minutes, and then you have to do something. But, as I said, the main reason I select a player is his football quality, regardless of his situation in his club.
How do you get along with the Austrian mentality? They say that Austrians are quickly satisfied. “It’s okay like that” and “We shall see“ are supposed to be characteristic Austrian attitudes. Did you see that mentality in your work with the national team? How did you handle it?
Yes, that’s the mentality of many Austrians. If you have your holidays here, then you’ll like it. But when you work together and when you want to have success, it’s important not to be satisfied too easily and not to lean back. We talked about this in our team meetings and we made it clear that we did not want 80% but 100% in each game. It took some time until we reached 100% and it’s important to demand it, to remind the players of that. But I’m happy to say that we’ve reached a point at which the players have recognised for themselves that it’s better always to give 100%. They’ve realised that we have success. Everything is more pleasant when you have success. So I’m glad that we managed to sort this out.
Like many national teams and clubs, you have a psychologist in your backroom staff. What can you say about the role of Thomas Graw?
While I was a player and also later when I started working as coach, I was always interested in psychology. A coach has to cope with a huge number of things; he has to have everything under control. Therefore I think it’s very important to have a good coaching team, to have co-workers who can take over some tasks from the coach. When I worked at Bochum, I began to work with Thomas and I noticed that it’s very important that the players do not always have to address the coach when they have some problem. Actually, in such situations, players tend to avoid talking to the coach, because they fear that he won’t put them in the team. Therefore it’s good that they have another guy for a confidential chat. So far it’s worked very well. Those are individual talks, which are not compulsory, but the players use them, not only during a national team get-together, but also while they are with their clubs.
And what’s the task of the sports scientist Dr Gerhard Zallinger?
He works in the field of physiology. He’s in charge of performance data and analysis in conditioning. He puts together individual programs for the players, particularly if a player is not always a regular at his club. In such cases we are in contact with the player and we ask him to do additional training to be at the required level when he comes to the national team.
Before you signed a new contract with the ÖFB in autumn 2013, you had an offer to take over the Switzerland national team. Did you have a dilemma because of the call of your home country – is that why it took you a long time to accept the Austria extension?
I wouldn’t say that it took me a long time. For media two or three days is an extremely long time. After we came back from the Faroe Islands, after our last World Cup qualifier, I said in a press conference that we would have contract talks and that this would not be finished from today to tomorrow. Eventually the talks lasted for around one week, if I remember rightly. The Austrian media exaggerated in their reports. I needed time to make a decision. When your home country calls you to become national coach, I think it’s normal that you think about it, whether it would be the right decision or not to take over the Swiss national team. I was very happy in Austria. At that point I had already lived in Vienna for two years. Actually, the main thing was the question of whether I could continue with the Austria national team. Then I also thought that I was talking all the time about how two years were not enough with a national team, and if I left Austria and took over Switzerland, I would have to start all over again. I would have to start from zero. Of course I also realised that with this Austria team there was the possibility for progress, that the potential was there, that their players showed the desire to go on, and that the fans were positive. At the same time I had also great support from the ÖFB as well as from the fans in Austria, everybody there asked me to stay. So I made the decision to continue with Austria and, well, so far I haven’t regretted it.
On taking the Austria job you said that it could take years until your coaching handwriting could be identified. It seems now that you can see your handwriting. How would you describe it? What kind of stamp have you managed to imprint on the playing style of the Austria national team?
Those who’ve known me for a long time can say, “Okay, that’s Marcel Koller who plays here.” On the one hand it’s aggressive play in defending, but it’s also the creative play in attacking actions. You can see it if you follow me for a long time. Also it’s the manner in which I handle things, how I like to follow my goals, that it’s not easy to make me change my path when I’m convinced that it’s the right direction. Sometimes there is some resistance, but I can cope with it.
In the World Cup qualifiers for Brazil 2014 you had that crucial game in Sweden when a draw would have been enough to get to the play-off. You played well and had a 1-0 lead, but in the end you lost 2-1. Now, two years later, this probably would not happen. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely. You need games like that to analyse afterwards where the mistakes were made when we were under pressure. And then you can try to correct things. We conceded late goals and now we have it in our heads how we have to play when we have a 1-0 lead and there’s 10 minutes until the end of the game. We showed that in the game against Russia [a 1-0 victory in Moscow in early June in a Euro qualifier].
Between that 2-1 defeat in Sweden and the resounding 4-1 win in Sweden two years later, what has changed?
Back in 2013 we dominated in the first half and we showed some fantastic play. But in the second half we failed to continue in that style. This time it was different. We put in a consistent performance throughout the whole game and – especially in the second half – we had chances to score even more goals. The shortest way to describe the development is that the team has become more mature and more clever.
What went through your head in those moments after such a spectacular performance?
The whole pressure of qualifying fell away. It was clear that “we’d done it”. It was an amazing liberating and beautiful moment. And in addition to that, after such a high-level performance of the team. It made me very proud – and grateful, because the players and the entire coaching staff had worked very hard to reach such a moment.
On paper, taking first place ahead of Russia and Sweden was a surprise. Can Austria deliver another surprise at Euro 2016? What result would you be happy with in France?
The first place is an answer to the doubters, who otherwise would have said that we qualified only because the number of participants has been increased from 16 to 24 teams. For me first place is not a surprise, because I know about the potential of this team.
The day after the win in Sweden, you came to your press-conference wearing a beret and eating a baguette. Whose idea was that?
It was my idea. Already in March this year I showed up with that costume in front of the team and I told the players, “This is our destination”. After we wrapped up the qualifications, I could do it also in public.
Naturalised players in national teams: yes or no? Would you pick a Brazilian with an Austrian passport?
Well, unlike in other sports, you can’t effectively just buy players for the national team. There is the rule that a player has to live and play in that country for five years, and only then he can change citizenship and be eligible to play for the national team, if he’s player we need. If that did happen, if everything was okay, if that player had the necessary quality, and he identified with his new country, then that question would probably be on the agenda and I would be open to such an option.
Do you have in your plans some new, young and talented players who could make it to the squad for Euro 2016?
Yes, we have some youngsters. For example [Philipp] Schobesberger from Rapid [Vienna] was with us for the first time for the Russia game. We have [Valentino] Lazaro, who has unfortunately been injured. [Marcel] Sabitzer is also a young player, who has already been with us a while. Of course it needs time for them to adapt to the team, until they put in constant and good performances. We will continue looking for new players. We will call them up to the national team, to see how they will settle in the new environment, to give them an opportunity to see the friendliness among their team-mates, to let them sniff the atmosphere in the national team.