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Austria's road to 2020 begins in India

Fabian Unterkircher (in red) is one of six under-18 players Austria have brought to Lucknow. Hockey India

Even as India look to make their own bit of history at the 11th Junior World Cup in men's hockey, which begins in Lucknow on December 8, it would be an occasion to remember for a nation that once featured regularly at the Olympics, but is now an outpost in the geography of the sport.

Austria are making their first appearance at the junior level of the event, and the first in men's hockey at a global stage since the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. If you count their senior women's team's participation at the Olympics in Moscow in 1980, and the World Cup a year later in Buenos Aires, this is the first time an Austrian team is participating at the finals of a global hockey event in 35 years.

"Our team has the lowest ranking among all the teams participating. The most important thing here will be performance."

"Austria is a football-oriented country, and like in most other nations, hockey is competing directly against a lot of sports. In that sense, there's no pressure on the team," says head coach Cedric D'Souza. The former two-time India coach took charge of the senior men's team in Austria in January 2016. "Our team [ranked 21st among seniors] has the lowest ranking among all the teams participating. The most important thing here will be performance," says the former two-time India coach.

D'Souza, who was yet to take over when Austria qualified for the World Cup by finishing sixth at the European Junior Championship in Belgium two years ago, has brought a young side, with six of the 20-strong squad regulars of the under-18 team. The youngest of the lot, Oliver Kern, will be 17 years and 121 days when they begin their campaign against 2005 champions Argentina on Friday in a competitive Pool A, which also includes Australia and Korea.

"Austrian hockey has many talented youngsters, and our attempt is always to push as many players into international leagues as possible, since our Austrian league is not that strong," says D'Souza, who has already integrated all the members of the junior team from 2014 into the senior setup. Five of the players in Lucknow - captain Leon Thornblom, Franz Lindengrun, Florian Steyrer , Pit Rudofsky and Oliver Binder - are regulars in the senior team, with four of them featuring in the World League Round 1 in Turkey in September where Austria finished first. Lindengren and Thornblom play club hockey abroad with Hamburg, while Binder also plays in Germany for Harvestehuder, the same club as 2013 player of the year and two-time Olympic gold medallist Tobias Hauke.

"The preparation for this team has been unlike any other for this junior World Cup," explains D'Souza. "All these players stay with their club most of the time. I would perhaps get the weekend with them, and I would do five sessions with them across Friday, Saturday and Sunday."

The Austrian league concluded on October 24, and following a two-day rest, they set off on a sequence of 13 practice games across four countries, winning four and losing five of the games. The notable results were beating the Bangladesh senior team in two matches, and also notching up two wins on the tour of Netherlands, where they faced the under-21 team and also faced a couple of local clubs. It was an impressive performance from a team in which the only recognisable star is defender Benjamin Stanzl, who also plays under D'Souza for the Delhi Waveriders in the Hockey India League (HIL).

"Playing with youth, sometimes their exuberance can get the better of them, and lead them to lose focus. Let's not forget that most of the countries here have a number of players that regularly play for the senior teams as well," says D'Souza, talking of the depth of field in Lucknow. "You look through the rosters of Australia, Germany, New Zealand - they have had some exposure at the highest level. And let's not forget the Indian team. Each of their players has been exposed to high-quality hockey thanks to the HIL. They have been preparing together for this event for a good while now, and they will be very hard to beat."

"We are aware of our strengths and weaknesses, and we'll enjoy this tournament. 2020 was the vision we had when I took over, and that is the aim for this tournament."

D'Souza says he took over with a clear mandate; that of seeing the senior team through to the 2020 Olympics, and that remains their target even as their younger generation take their bow at a global event. And that is what he stresses upon when asked if the team should take inspiration from having qualified for the World Cup at the expense of 2013 runners-up France.

"We've had a good five weeks or so together. We are aware of our strengths and weaknesses, and we'll enjoy this tournament. 2020 was the vision we had when I took over, and that is the aim for this tournament. The ones who perform well will hopefully start pushing those in the senior team for places," says D'Souza.