When the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking was announced for October and Austria were situated among the world elite, there were a few quizzical looks. Placed inside the top ten for the very first time in the table's 25 year existence, the Alpine nation's rise had caught many by surprise.
Having qualified for UEFA EURO 2016 with an exceptional 28 points from ten games, Austria will arrive in France as one of the continent's in-form teams. Yet they will do so while still flying under the radar - a fact centre-back Sebastian Prodl finds a little tough to get his head around. “I think we've proved a lot over the past few years,” he told FIFA.com.
“If you take a look at Austrian football at the minute, not only the national team but also the likes of the players in Germany and across the other big European leagues, I think we have been underestimated.”
Austria's rise into the upper echelons of world football sees them ranked higher than traditional powerhouses Italy and the Netherlands for the first time, with Prodl of the opinion that this reflects their dominant run in reaching the European Championship. After an opening 1-1 draw with Sweden, they strung together nine successive wins to progress in style.
“The only team who were better than us were England,” Prodl reflected. “We're very proud of our record in qualification. We were a little bit unlucky at home [against Sweden], but we focused on what we wanted to reach in terms of getting to the EUROs and we kept believing all the time.”
And with the dropped points against the Swedes their only blemish, the Austrians more than made up for it in the return match, securing qualification in stunning style with a superb 4-1 victory. “It was the best qualifying win for Austria in the last 20 years," Prodl said, recalling that special match at the Friends Arena.
“It was a perfect night for us in Stockholm. Everything went well, everyone performed at 100 per cent, we were very focused and had great tactics from the coach [Marcel Koller]. We truly deserved it.”
That European Championships probably came two or three years early.
It was a fitting setting for them to achieve their first qualification for the EURO – having appeared at 2008 as co-hosts – as two years earlier they had seen their hopes at reaching 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ dashed on the very same pitch. A late Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal snatched a 2-1 victory for Sweden, which ultimately saw them claim a play-off place ahead of Austria, who would have needed just a point to prevail.
To put that defeat to bed was satisfying for the 28-year-old, but he ultimately feels the damage was done earlier in the campaign. “Of course it was a dream for us win so impressively on a ground that we lost on two years earlier. [That game] was when our hopes ended, but I think we lost our way in qualification earlier when we drew in Kazakhstan and Ireland.”
This summer, he and the country's fans will get their chance to fly the Austrian flag proudly at a major tournament for the first time since the EURO was played within their borders. Prodl featured at that 2008 showpiece, still fresh-faced as he began his senior international career, following on from a fourth-placed finish as captain at the FIFA U-20 World Cup the summer before.
“I have great, great memories of 2008. Because it was in our home country it was an amazing atmosphere in Austria – with two or three months to go it had already started. Unfortunately we could not get out of the group stages but it was a great experience for me as I began my career. We already had a good team, but that European Championships probably came two or three years early.”
This time round he will be one of the team's most senior figures and feels they have chance of reaching new heights in their second appearance. “It's a tough group. We were happy about it, but I think Portugal, Iceland and Hungary will have been happy about it too. Portugal with Cristiano [Ronaldo] are the big favourites... [but] we have the confidence to go there and get to the next round.”
The Watford defender will arrive as part of a mini-wave of Austrians making their mark in England, with Prodl and three of his countrymen found nestled in the Premier League's top ten – a first for the nation. The table is currently topped by national team captain Christian Fuchs, who has helped lead Leicester City's incredible season so far, while Marko Arnautovic is impressing at Stoke City and Kevin Wimmer emerging as a promising prospect at Tottenham Hotspur.
The quartet are in regular contact and Prodl admits he is enjoying his first season since his move from Werder Bremen. “Playing in the Premier League is always something I've dreamed about,” he said. “I like the atmosphere in the stadiums and the art of playing football here. It's quite hard of course but it's very honest football, a nice football culture.”
With Watford looking on course to survive on their return to the top flight having defied pre-season expectations, Prodl will no doubt hope he and the rest of this impressive crop of Austrian talent can turn domestic momentum into a summer to remember in France.