The surprise package of Euro 2017 have star quality and self-belief, but face a battle to get out of a tough group
This article is part of the Guardian’s Women’s Euro 2022 Experts Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 16 countries who have qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 6 July.
Five years is a long time. Not only in the world of football, but perhaps especially there. In 2017, Austria made their debut on the big women’s football stage, at the Euros in the Netherlands, and took the country on an unimaginably successful ride. The underdogs reached the semi-finals, creating hype around the team at home and abroad. Public attention and affection grew and suddenly names such as Manuela Zinsberger, Viktoria Schnaderbeck and Sarah Puntigam were becoming well known, featuring on TV and in commercials.
Before these Euros in England some of the names have changed, and so has the perception of the team. “The signs are completely different now,” the Bayern Munich defender Carina Wenninger has said. “The other teams know who we are now.”
If we are honest, the hype after the last Euros did not last too long. Women’s football may now have a bigger role within the football federation but Austria still struggles to get young girls into football. At the moment only 7% of active players in Austria are female.
However the national team, now under the stewardship of Irene Fuhrmann, who took over from Dominik Thalhammer in 2020, continue to make progress and have taken several steps forward recently. Fuhrmann has an excellent mix of experienced and young players, who are pushing each other to play a refreshing and successful style of football. “Our great asset is our versatility,” she says. “As a team and as individuals we are prepared to take on every challenge.”
Austria were outstanding in qualifying, drawing at home against France and conceding only three goals throughout the whole campaign. They qualified as one of the best group runners-up and Wenninger, who was part of the 2017 squad, says: “We have an even better team now than then.”
In July 2020, Irene Fuhrmann became the first woman to lead the Austrian national team when she took over from Thalhammer, who became the LASK men’s coach. She recalls her first few weeks in charge: “Most of the interviews back then centred around the fact that I was the first woman as a head coach.“ Things have moved on since then and the focus is more on the actual football now. As a player, Fuhrmann won 23 caps for Austria and as a manager she is known as someone who is hard-working and a good communicator. Having been assistant coach under Thalhammer she knew most of the players when she took on the top job. Keeps herself fit by going on long runs in the woods.
Sarah Zadrazil. Shamefully ignored by the Guardian Top 100 list (looking at you, Guardian judges) the Bad Ischl native is a key midfielder for Champions League quarter-finalists Bayern Munich and the Austrian national team. She is very composed on the ball and her excellent decision making stands out all the time. Off the pitch, the 29-year-old is an ambassador for WePlayStrong.com, a digital media platform and community dedicated to women’s football. She launched her first girls’ football camp in May 2022 and was the first female footballer to sign a commercial deal with Red Bull.
Barbara Dunst has just completed an outstanding season for German side Eintracht Frankfurt, posing a real threat to opposing sides with her pace, technical ability and precise finishing. Now 24, she was part of the 2017 squad but did not play a single minute. Now in the prime of her career, she has taken huge steps forward and can be a game-decider this summer. Her speciality is dribbling past a player (or a few) before launching a rocket of a shot. Her passion for the game seems endless. “I could play football all day long. I just love it,” she once said.
Nina Burger. When the legendary striker retired in 2019 there was a big question mark surrounding Austrian women’s football: who would score all the goals? The answer eventually came in the shape of Nicole Billa, but Burger’s were big shoes to fill indeed. Burger scored 53 goals in 108 appearances for her country and was a key figure in promoting women’s football in Austria, being influential in the transition of the sport from niche amateur sport to what it is today. “She was fundamental for the development of women’s football in Austria,” Thalhammer said when she retired. She is now in charge of the women’s football department at Austria’s oldest football club, First Vienna FC.
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The last Euros in 2017 was the first time Austria had qualified for the tournament. They had been getting closer and closer, finishing second in their qualifying group and losing to Russia in the play-offs four years before that. In the Netherlands, expectations were low but they beat Switzerland and Iceland in their group and even drew against France. Austria proceeded to knock out Spain in the quarter-finals (on penalties) before losing to Denmark in the last four (also on penalties). It was, indeed, the breakthrough for women’s football in Austria.
Realistic aim this summer
Getting out of the group is the main aim here. They are up against England first – and may struggle against the hosts – so the second game against Northern Ireland is key before a potential winner-takes-all fixture against Norway. Prediction: quarter-final.