Josef Hickersberg (40) had been appointed manager for the Austrian national team from January 1988, with the 1990 World Cup as his first aim. In fact, his appointment came as a surprise to many, who pointed out that he had little previous experience as a manager: his only non-player job hitherto had been with Austria’s U21s. Hickersberger’s background with the U21s would be important for his team selection, as his team probably was the youngest in the entire European qualification zone for Italia’90. As his right hand was former Rapid Vienna assistant manager Walter Gebhardt, and among the coaching staff was legendary goalkeeper Friedrich Koncilia.
Two players remained from the great Austrian team that participated in the 1978 World Cup: Herbert Prohaska and Heribert Weber (Hickersberger had of course himself been part of the 1978 team). In addition, Klaus Lindenberger and Josef Degeorgi had been part of the 1982 squad. Since then, Austria had not qualified for a major tournament, and for the 1988 Euro, they had never come close to challenging Romania and Spain in their group. The squad had however already under Branko Elsner in the European Championships qualifiers had a fairly low average age, and hope was that this team could blossom under Hickersberger in time for Italia’90.
During the 80s, Austria had only once been successful in qualifying for a major tournament: the ’82 World Cup in Spain. In the previous attempt at reaching a World Cup, ahead of Mexico ’86, Austria had finished third behind winners Hungary and runners-up Netherlands. Yet around this time, they had boasted some truly wonderful players. They had goalkeeper Friedrich Koncilia, who had reached 84 caps, a considerable figure in 1985, by the time of his international retirement. In defence, Bruno Pezzey (may he rest in peace) had probably been their linchpin, and he had played for a decade in the West German Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen, eventually also bowing out with 84 caps to his name. The most notable midfielders were probably Herbert Prohaska and Kurt Jara, whilst strikers Walter Schachner and Hans Krankl were household names throughout the continent. Hickersberger’s rebuilding task was a mammoth one; he had a lot of relatively recent footballing greats to be reminded of.
At the start of the qualification for Italia ’90, ‘Pepi’ seemed to rely on the seasoned Heribert Weber as his squad’s focal point. The 33 year old libero might have been in the twilight of his international career, but he still possessed some speed, and his experience was invaluable for the youngish side which the manager was putting together. Weber had been a national team member since the late 70s, and he had indeed come on as a substitute for all three of their ’78 World Cup first phase matches. Another player of this era was midfield man Ernst Baumeister, still a national team participant in friendlies leading up to the start of the qualification, though he would ultimately not be a part of Hickersberger’s plans. Herbert Prohaska would, however, be seen during the qualification.
The 1990 qualification as far as Austria were concerned, belonged to the up and coming generation of footballers. One would get to know players such as defenders Kurt Russ, Robert Pecl, Peter Artner, Ernst Aigner and Anton Pfeffer, as well as midfielders Peter Stöger, Manfred Zsak and Andreas Herzog. Up front, in addition to the already well known Polster and Pacult, were Andreas Ogris and also Gerhard Rodax. The future appeared to have elements of optimism, though it remained to be seen whether these could cut it at international level during a gruelling qualification.
Friendly: Hungary 0-4 Austria
Goals: Marko 3, Hasenhüttl
Line-up (3-5-2): Lindenberger – Pecl, Weber (c) (Schöttel 81), Artner (Werner 81) – Willfurth, Russ, Baumeister (Stöger h-t), Zsak, Pfeffer – Pacult (Hasenhüttl h-t), Marko)
Friendly: Austria 0-2 Brazil
Line-up (5-3-2): Lindenberger (Wohlfahrt 90) – Russ, Artner (Stöger h-t), Weber (c), Pecl (Schöttel 82), Pfeffer – Willfurth, Zsak, Baumeister (Polster 57) – Ogris, Pacult (Madlener 82)
The first half saw no goals, as Austria started well, but faded as the half progressed. They had little penetration, and instead owed to goalkeeper Lindenberger (saved with his legs when Artner almost put through his own net) and the post (Nelsinho with an awful miss in front of a gaping goal) for shutting the Brazilian Olympic select out. Stöger comes on for Artner at half-time, and slots into midfield, with Zsak dropping back into defence. Zsak will return to midfield when Polster comes on, as Hickersberger seems to make the switch to 4-3-3. Brazil have central defender Batista sent off for hauling Pacult down from behind in the centre-circle 20 minutes into the second period. At this point, the visitors are already ahead thanks to Edmar’s goal. Austria are unable to muster much in terms of danger in front of Brazil’s goal, and a tame shot by Pacult from 25 yard is about the closest they get. In the dying minutes, they concede a second, as no one appears interested in stopping Andrade’s solo effort for 2-0. Wohlfahrt comes on in injury time for the injured Lindenberger, who had collided with Brazil substitute Ademir when denting a third goal for the visitors.
Friendly: Hungary 0-0 Austria
Line-up: Wohlfahrt (Konsel h-t) – Willfurth, Weber (c), Russ, Pfeffer – Artner, Zsak (Madlener 85), Baumeister (Glatzmayer h-t) – Ogris, Polster, Pacult (Kern h-t)
Polster strikes the post with a second half penalty on his return to the starting line-up. The match sees the debut of 19 year old midfielder Gerald Glatzmayer.
Friendly: Czechoslovakia 4-2 Austria
Goals: Pacult, Willfurth
Line-up: Lindenberger (Wohlfahrt h-t) – Willfurth, Pfeffer, Weber (c), Pecl (Schöttel h-t), Hörmann – Artner, Zsak (Glatzmayer 76), Herzog – Ogris (Pacult h-t), Polster