Austria: Hosts without a hope?
With a FIFA World Ranking of 92nd Austria head into the European Championships with the unwanted distinction of being deemed to be a worse side than footballing powerhouses such as Guatemala (89) and Mozambique (90). They are comfortably the worst side to be taking part in the European Championships, possibly ever.
To point this out is not to denigrate the Austrians but merely to underline the size of the task that faces them this summer.
Since the inaugural event in 1960 Austria have never once qualified for the European Championships and are only present this time are around by virtue of being co-hosts with Switzerland.
And to give a further hint to the Austrians' international pedigree they have only competed in a World Cup finals tournament twice since Spain '82 and in those two appearances, at Italia '90 and France '98, they failed to negotiate a path out of the group stage.
The past decade has represented the Austrian national side's nadir with a truly devastating string of results featuring such heartbreakers as a 9-0 defeat to Spain and a 5-0 reverse against Israel in 1999; and in 2002 a 2-0 defeat to Canada and a dispiriting 0-0 draw with Malta.
The vast majority of Austrian fans hope that the 2008 European Championship will provide their national side with the opportunity to leave this raft of humiliating defeats in the past. They are dreaming that the team can capitalise on their status as co-hosts and ride the wave of national pride and excitement and maybe, just maybe, defy all the odds and qualify from Group B to reach the quarter finals.
There are, however, some Austrian fans who would rather their national side were not involved at all and actually ran a petition aimed at trying to force the Austrian FA to voluntarily resign their active participation.
The website of the 'Österreich zeigt Rückgrat' (Austria shows Character) campaign states: 'It cannot be denied: the performance of the Austrian team is an insult to your sense of aesthetics as well as to what you expect from this sport. Their participating in Euro 2008 is to you a contradiction in itself.'
It might sound like a joke, but the organisers of the campaign are quite serious and are genuinely concerned that rather than being a chance to showcase Austrian culture and hospitality to the world, Euro 2008 represents a unique opportunity for painful humiliation on a global scale.
As a consequence of being co-hosts Austria have not played a competitive game since their failure to reach the 2006 World Cup, so they began their preparations for Euro 2008 with a string of challenging friendly games.
First up in February were their traditional rivals Germany in Vienna, a game they lost 3-0 despite playing well. In March the Netherlands came to town but despite taking an improbable 3-0 lead Austria ended up losing 4-3.
Looking at the calibre of players available to Austrian coach Josef Hickersberger one can understand why the national side has struggled so much in recent times. The name of Middlesbrough defender Emanuel Pogatetz is probably the most familiar in an Austrian line-up which is desperately short on true international-class players.
Goals are a problem for Austria; striker Roland Linz, with just five goals from 27 appearances, is by far the national side's main goal threat. Despite a less than devastating strike rate at international level Linz regularly finds the net in Portuguese domestic football where he currently plies his trade with SC Braga. Linz's likely striker partner at Euro 2008 will be Sanel Kuljic, who at age 30 has just 19 caps and three goals to his name.
If goal-shy Austria are to stand a chance of progressing from Group B, in which they will compete against the strength of Croatia, Germany and Poland, their ingenuity at set-pieces will be vital. And in promising young defender Sebastian Prödl they could have found the man to give them a chance, something he proved himself capable of when he scored from two corners in the defeat to the Netherlands in March.
The team's talisman is 24-year-old captain Andreas Ivanschitz, a nifty left-footed playmaker and the man once labelled the Austrian David Beckham thanks to his high profile in his home country. He became Austria's youngest-ever skipper aged just 19 back in 2003 when he took the armband ahead of a European qualifier with the Czech Republic and will be the fulcrum of the Austrian side this summer.
Realistically Austria's chances are slim burgeoning on the anorexic, but they will hope that their coach Hickersberger, one of the most successful in Austrian football, will be able to find the right combination of players and tactics to cause a shock or two.
Hickersberger is no stranger to football at the very highest level, having represented the Austrian national side as a player at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and managed them at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
However, after first coaching the Austrian under-21s and then leading the senior team at Italia '90 'Hicke' quit as international coach shortly after the World Cup finals following the acutely embarrassing 1-0 defeat to the lowly Faroe Islands.
After spells in charge of Fortuna Dusseldorf and Austria Vienna, Hickersberger decided it was time for a change of scene and spent time working in the Middle East where he coached a number of domestic outfits, as well as the Bahrain national team.
However, it was with SK Rapid Vienna that Hickersberger enjoyed his most successful spell as a manager. On his return to Austria he set about rebuilding the club's fortunes, landing them the league title in 2004/05, their first in nine years, and delivering Champions League football.
Hickersberger, who took charge of the Austrian national side in January 2006, is relishing the coming adventure, as he told the FIFA website: 'There's nothing to match coaching the home team at a major finals in your own country.
'We'll go into the tournament as underdogs, but hopefully I'll be in charge of a team capable of surprising a lot of people in a very positive way. Despite the big-name opposition, we want to survive the group and make it to the quarter-finals. Naturally, we're fully aware we are rank outsiders and that's what we'll be when the tournament starts'.
Austria's campaign begins on June 8th when they face Croatia at the Ernst Happel Stadion, next up at the same venue comes Poland on June 12th and finally on June 16, again in the national stadium in Vienna, Austria face Germany, hopefully with something left to play for.