Altach, Austria's Leicester, reaching new heights under Werner Grabherr
The year of 2016 is drawing to a close, and it will always be remembered for the success of Leicester City in the Premier League. It wasn't only the Foxes who shone though -- underdogs seemed to be having fun all over the world, from IFK Mariehamn in Finland to Plaza Colonia in Uruguay. And now a team from a small Austrian village is mounting a title challenge with 31-year-old marketing manager Werner Grabherr as coach.
SC Rheindorf Altach are top of the Austrian Bundesliga ahead of the mega-rich Red Bull Salzburg and the traditional powerhouses of Austria Wien, Rapid Wien and Sturm Graz. Only one team is relegated in Austria, but Altach were in serious danger of finishing rock bottom last season. Little was expected of them this term as well, but they have enjoyed a near-perfect home record with eight wins and two draws in 10 matches at the tiny Stadion Schnabelholz, proudly looking down at all the rest.
The club's success is mainly down to the tremendous work done by sporting director Georg Zellhofer and wily former coach Damir Canadi, who took over in 2013 and immediately masterminded promotion to the top flight for only the second time in the club's history.
Altach previously played in the Bundesliga between 2006-2009, and when they came back had a serious five-year plan to establish themselves in mid-table. They surprised themselves and finished third in 2015, qualifying for the Europa League. Now, after a season of struggle, they could be on the verge of achieving something truly amazing.
"With a budget of about €4 million, Altach have to sign players nobody else wants or try out inexperienced youngsters," Sebastian Rauch, sports editor-in-chief at the local NEUE Vorarlberger Tagerzeitung tells ESPN FC. "Canadi took a squad of anonymous players and produced a strong unit. His main quality is noticing talent and nurturing it. He is able to find a system that suits the players at his disposal, rather than trying to get players who fit into a rigid system."
Canadi was very flexible. He changed game plans according to the opposition, and was not afraid to make significant tactical switches. Claudio Ranieri made Leicester's defence much more stable by moving from Nigel Pearson's 3-5-2 system to a back four; Altach flourished after doing exactly the opposite. Like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, Canadi decided to try playing with three centre-backs and two wing-backs since the summer, and the results were outstanding.
Come November, though, Altach were dealt a significant blow when Canadi was lured away by Rapid Wien. Despite having a contract until the summer of 2017, the 46-year-old chose to abandon the project and join a big club in deep crisis. Rapid considered big names like Andreas Herzog and Didi Kuhbauer after firing Mike Buskens, but preferred the local specialist who knows the league and proved his worth beyond doubt. Fittingly, Canadi signed off at Altach with a superb 5-1 win over Austria Wien.
"When Rapid call, you don't think twice. It's the biggest club in the country, and Canadi has never hidden his ambitions," Rauch explains. That is why Altach were not stunned by the unexpected development.
Meanwhile, Zellhofer said: "It was clear that he would make the big step. The timing is surprising, of course, but we have to respect his wish."
The club had an emergency plan for such a situation, and it was rather unorthodox. Altach turned to Grabherr, who started his playing career at the club but spent most of it at amateur level, and had to retire four years ago due to injury after a short spell at the magnificently named FC Egg. He studied business management, because it gave him an option outside of football -- which is why, while being promoted from reserve team coach to Canadi's assistant in the summer, Grabherr also serves as the club's marketing director.
With his mentor gone, he took over on temporary basis, and things have been going smoothly with the youngest-ever coach in Austria. "Werner has always been close, and he knows the team very well. It is natural to give him a chance," Zellhofer stated.
According to Rauch, Grabherr was responsible for video analysis, while many of Canadi's tactical ideas came from him. It has shown. Altach took 10 points from five matches but ran into a bureaucratic problem. Grabherr doesn't have the UEFA Pro license, and thus can't be appointed on permanent basis, so the search has started for a long-term successor, and the interim coach is ready to return to his marketing duties sooner rather than later.
Grabherr's unique story is just one of many unusual tales at Altach.
Take Andreas Lukse, for example. A Rapid academy graduate, the goalkeeper showed promise in his youth, but his attitude was truly appalling and he was eventually left without a club and considered quitting football for good before Canadi signed him for Lustenau in 2011. Two years later, he moved to Altach with his beloved coach, and developed into one of the best shot stoppers in the country. At the age of 29, Lukse made his debut for the national team and kept a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw against Slovakia.
Cameroonian midfielder Louis Ngwat-Mahop was once signed by Bayern Munich, and even played a couple of minutes in the Bundesliga in 2007 alongside the likes of Mehmet Scholl, Oliver Kahn, Philipp Lahm and Claudio Pizarro. But he was found to have had a fake passport, the club terminated his contract and his career went downhill. At Altach, though, Ngwat-Mahop has become a star, and showed remarkable versatility playing in many different positions.
Another Yaounde-born star is 19-year-old striker Dimitri Oberlin, who represents Switzerland at youth level. The technically skilled forward found his feet at Altach while on loan from Red Bull Salzburg, and is second top scorer in the league with nine goals.
But the most popular figure is 31-year-old captain Philipp Netzer, an elegant defensive midfielder turned defender. Having tried his luck at Austria Wien without success, he returned to the club of his youth back in 2009 and gradually developed into a quality footballer and a true leader.
"Altach's big advantage is that there is no pressure," Peter Altmann, deputy editor-in-chief at laola1.at tells ESPN FC. "They are a village of 6,500 people, closer to Switzerland than to the rest of Austria. They enjoy calm working conditions without any distractions. The national media are obsessed with Rapid, Austria, Salzburg and Sturm."
And thus, Altach are not considered legitimate title contenders by pundits, but neither were Leicester last December. Humble and tactically superb, they could yet surprise everyone and become the latest in a growing list of unexpected champions.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin