VIENNA (Reuters) - When UEFA decided to expand the European Championship finals from 16 to 24 teams, Austria were seen as one of the teams most likely to benefit.
By no means among Europe’s weakest teams, Austria were never quite good enough to make the final 16 and their only appearance in the finals came in 2008 when they co-hosted the event.
Such has been Austria’s improvement that they would have qualified for France had it been a 16, or even eight-team, tournament.
After drawing at home to Sweden in their opening game, Austria stormed through their qualifiers as they won all their remaining games, beating Russia at home and away and thrashing Sweden 4-1 to clinch their place in style.
Coach Marcel Koller, given a lukewarm reception when he was appointed in 2011, has received most of the credit for lifting Austria from 70th in the world rankings to just outside the top 10.
Koller has given the team a new tactical identity and has also proved a master at getting the most out of his players, including temperamental forward Marko Arnautovic.
He has also brought remarkable stability, fielding an unchanged starting line-up in the last six qualifiers.
The turnaround had been in the making even before the low-profile Swiss, whose last club job ended with him being ignominiously sacked by German club VfL Bochum, took over.
The Austrian federation had already implemented a new youth development programme and, like neighbouring Switzerland, begun to tap into the country’s large pool of immigrant talent, something they had previously failed to do.
Most of the players are based in the Bundesliga or English Premier League, giving Austria plenty of top-level experience despite their past failures to qualify for top tournaments.
With versatile Bayern Munich player David Alaba pulling the strings in midfield, the final 16 is the minimum they will be aiming at and there is a good chance they could go further.