Going into their first Junior World Cup, it might have been fair to say the Austrian hockey team - ranked lowest amongst the participants -- were rank outsiders. Their results in Lucknow are not doing justice to the tag. After holding Argentina to a draw in their opening game, Austria produced yet another upset beating Korea 5-2 in their second Pool A match in Lucknow on Saturday. With four points from two games, the side coached by former India manager Cedric D'Souza are currently top of their group and within touching distance of a quarterfinal spot (the top two teams make the last eight)
"I'm ecstatic with the result. I'm very proud of the team," says D'Souza who also coaches the Delhi Waveriders franchise in the Hockey India League. D'Souza said that the fact that the team went in to the tournament as the weakest on paper played to their advantage. "We went into the tournament as the lowest ranked side (the Austrian senior team is currently 21st in the FIH rankings. Korea is 11th and Olympic champions Argentina are 2nd) We were the minnows. But that meant that there was no pressure on us," says D'Souza.
As a result Austria could focus on their strengths. "In teams such as Germany, Australia and India, a number of players are in the senior squad as well. Our players don't have the benefit of playing at that high level. We needed to keep our defensive structure. And we have been able to maintain our discipline," he says.
D'Souza said he knew the Koreans would press hard against his side. "Against Korea we knew they would be very attacking so our plan was to hit them on the counter. We played fast and passed often because if we kept the ball for too long, we would be in trouble," says D'Souza.
That strategy played out perfectly in Lucknow on Saturday. Field goals from Marcel Hilbert (8th minute) and Pit Rudofsky (21st minute) put Austria 2-0 up before Joohan Park (35st minute) pulled one back for Korea just before the break through a penalty stroke. Oliver Binder, who had scored the equalizer against Argentina on Friday, scored Austria's third in the 39th minute through a penalty corner, before Park scored his second through yet another penalty stroke in the 56th to reduce the deficit. Franz Lindengrun made it 4-2 in 60th minute through a penalty corner and Pit Rudofsky rounded off an impressive win in the 62nd minute, scoring his second through a field goal.
While the win puts his side in a great position to qualify for the quarterfinals, D'Souza says that isn't the team's target. Speaking to ESPN before the tournament, D'Souza had said that the seeing the senior team through to the 2020 Olympics was his primary goal, and he viewed Junior WC as a way to groom the youngsters for Tokyo. "There are four players who are under 18 in our side for this tournament. This is a great sign for us," he said.
For D'Souza Saturday's result would be a great milestone on a journey that started in January this year when he was picked as Austria's coach. He had coached Viennese club SV Arminen between 2010 and 2013, helping the side win its first title in 15 years. The president of the Austrian Hockey Federation, Walter Kapounek, had then told him that if there was ever a vacancy for the national team's coach, he would be the first to get a call. Four years later Kapounek drove from Vienna to Antwerp to make the offer in person to D'Souza who was then doing commentary for the Hockey World League. "At that point I had an offer for a five year contract from a club in Scotland. But I had told them to give me a month to think about it. And then suddenly on the 29th day, Walter drove down to Antwerp to ask me to prepare Austria for the 2020 Olympics. It was a no brainer to agree. What else can you call it but destiny," says D'Souza.
While his side has had two great results, they have an even bigger challenge coming up next. On Monday, they play Australia. "The boys have had a spring in their step after the game against Argentina, but we have a really hard game against Australia. Regardless of the result we need to take lessons from the game. I've told the boys that our journey is to the 2020 Olympics. Anything else - win or loss-before then is just a pitstop," he says.