Last time Austria caused a stir, eight years ago, their achievement amazed the footballing world. At the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2007 in Canada, they elbowed their way into the semi-finals and flew home proudly after finishing in fourth place. Back then Francesco Lovric was an 11-year-old with big dreams, playing in Austria Vienna’s youth ranks and sitting in front of the television late into the evening to cheer on his team.
Today Lovric plays for historic German club Stuttgart, and in a few short weeks will be leading the next generation of talented young Austrian footballers to New Zealand as captain. Awaiting them in Group B are Panama, former champions Ghana and record title holders Argentina. Despite these obstacles, the 19-year-old is full of anticipation and can barely wait for the tournament to begin. His ambition? “We want to walk in the footsteps of our role models!”
On the up
The defensive all-rounder is aware of the significance of Austria’s participation in the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2015. After exiting the competition at the group stage in Colombia four years ago, coach Andreas Heraf’s charges are keen to prove once more in New Zealand that football in this Alpine nation of 8.5 million people is blossoming at an impressive rate. “Our association, the OFB, has developed new approaches and we’re getting great training,” enthused Lovric in an interview with FIFA.com. Now, together with his team-mates, he is keen to show that the senior side, most notably represented by Bayern Munich star David Alaba, need not worry about their prospects in the years ahead.
A blend of collective and individual skill
“I think Austria’s footballers have generally improved both technically and tactically,” Lovric continued. “Nevertheless, we’ll also make our fighting spirit clear at the U-20 World Cup. Everyone works for each other in our squad,” he said, before thinking about the captain’s speech he makes right before each match kicks off. “We stand in a circle, I say a few words and at the end we call out together, as loudly as we can: ‘We are a team!’”
One of their number will be particularly missed, with Austria’s U-20 side unable to call upon the attacking strengths and individual brilliance of Sinan Bytyqi. The rising star, who has already been signed by Manchester City and was recently sent out on loan to Cambuur-Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, will miss the finals with a torn cruciate ligament. “We would have loved to have him with us and we’ll miss him,” said Lovric.
"The highlight of our careers so far"
To prepare for a starting line-up without Bytyqi and acclimatise to the conditions and time difference, Heraf’s squad will fly to Auckland on 16 May and face the hosts in a friendly eight days later – but Lovric would love to be on his way there already. “I have no doubt that this will be a fantastic experience for us, even the 30-hour journey to get there,” he said. “We’re travelling to the other end of the world and every single one of us is tremendously excited. This World Cup will be the highlight of our careers so far. It’s the greatest.” Nevertheless, the 19-year-old defensive specialist, currently awaiting his Bundesliga debut for Stuttgart but already a constant presence in the club’s third-division reserve side, is keen to temper any euphoria when it comes to the sporting challenge that awaits his team. “We’ve got difficult opponents ahead and I think we’d be well advised to imagine ourselves in a kind of outsider role,” Lovric explained. “The Argentinians are the clear favourites in Group B, but otherwise it’ll be very close. We’re hoping to finish second – that’s a realistic aim – but we certainly can’t afford to underestimate Ghana and Panama.”
Perfect blend makes the difference
Listening to Lovric, it quickly becomes clear why he has been appointed to lead Austria’s current crop of U-20 players. After all, the 1.85-metre-tall model athlete can stir emotions and motivate those around him, but also knows exactly when to slow things down and focus on being a strategist instead. Although he usually plays as a holding midfielder between defence and attack for Stuttgart, at international level he is primarily deployed at centre-half.
In all these ways Lovric is reminiscent of his biggest role model, and admitted to FIFA.com
that he is "trying to emulate Yaya Toure.” In New Zealand he will get the chance to follow the Ivorian's lead on a global stage.