x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Nothing will top Italia '90

Josef Hickersberger, the former Al Wahda coach, talks about his own World Cup experiences and why he is tipping Brazil to emerge victorious.

Josef Hickersberger, left, during his last stint in charge of the Austrian national team at Euro 2008 against Germany.
Josef Hickersberger, left, during his last stint in charge of the Austrian national team at Euro 2008 against Germany.

Josef Hickersberger is one of a handful of men to have played in and coached at the World Cup. The Austrian has many memories from his career, but managing his national team in the 1990 World Cup remains his most cherished achievement, even though they exited at the group stage.

"Managing a team in the 1990 World Cup in Italy was the best moment in my life," says Hickersberger, 62, who last season lead Al Wahda to the Pro League title before leaving last month. "We went very close, losing the first game against the hosts Italy 1-0. We had a few chances to score first, but couldn't take advantage of those opportunities. We lost the next game to Czechoslovakia by a penalty and won the last match against the USA.

"They were all very close results and we had to wait for the outcome of other group games to see if we finished as one of the best third-placed teams, but we didn't. "We had a very young team and it was a good experience for them. And the same team qualified eight years later in France. But in 1990, I thought that's the maximum we could have gone. To qualify ahead of Turkey and Russia was in itself a great achievement."

Austria have not made it back to the final stages since France '98, something Hickersberger attributes to the lack of youth development. "In Austria we have not done enough to develop young players," he adds. "Players like Hans Krankl and Herbert Prohaska [who played in the strong Austrian sides of the 1970s] don't come out all the time. Such players come out once every two or four years from the talent grown up in the streets.

"We have to invest in the youth system and academies, which we have recently done, but this will take time. It will take a decade or two for the system to get results." Hickersberger, who also saw his son, Thomas, capped by Austria in 2002, played in a game known as "The Miracle of Cordoba" at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. The unfancied Austrians beat West Germany, the world champions, 3-2 in the second group stage to prevent their rivals from advancing to the semi-finals. It was Austria's first victory over any German team pre or post-partition for 47 years, although they also failed to progress to the last four.

"It's more than 32 years ago. I was playing in the midfield and we were the first team to qualify from the group stage," he says. "Nobody expected us to qualify and that win over Germany made us heroes back home." Hickersberger tips Brazil to emerge victorious in South Africa. "No African teams are mature enough to win the World Cup on their own soil. History rules out European teams as they have not won outside the continent. So that leaves teams from South America as the potential champions, and that's between Brazil and Argentina," opines the former Al Wasl coach. "Argentina don't have a manager because Diego Maradona is still more of a player than a coach. So for me, Brazil are the hot favourites. For an outsider, I'll pick Serbia. They did very well in qualification and they have their players in the best leagues. I thought they would win in 2006 in Germany, but they disappointed."

Hickersberger is a big fan of Maradona the player, but insists the Argentine legend must do more to get the best our of his star-studded squad. "It is very difficult to comment on something that's happening far away, but Argentina has similar quality as Brazil. But for me, it is a mystery how Lionel Messi plays for his country when compared to his performances for Barcelona," he says. "This is surely the task of the coach. Maybe he has to change his role, maybe he has to change the players around him, because Messi alone can win the World Cup for Argentina.

"But so far Maradona has not been able to achieve that. Now maybe he has enough time in the preparation for the World Cup. I'm one of the greatest fans of Maradona the player. And it would be hurting my own feelings if I say he is not experienced enough to be a coach. Or to say something against the football legend." The former Bahrain national coach said he also felt that Asian teams have a long way to go before they perform on the same level as the major playing nations. He says: "I don't think the football in Asia is so good that they can compete against the best. It will take more time. The level hasn't gone down. I have seen players in this area are beginning to get better. But the level of football is much higher in Europe and South America." apassela@thenational.ae