Austria could have been mistaken in the past weeks as the World Cup venue instead of faraway South Africa, as some of the world’s top teams trained and played their final matches before the big event.
For over 20 years, the small alpine nation has welcomed national sides and prestigious clubs like Arsenal and Real Madrid for altitude training in the summer.
But with players facing games at over 1,000 metres above sea level in South Africa, Austria turned into a meeting point for world-class footballers in the past month such as Spain’s Xavi Hernandez, England’s Steven Gerrard and Wesley Sneijder from the Netherlands.
“The climate is similar to the one we’ll have in South Africa and the altitude is similar too,” said Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso, whose squad is training in Schruns, in the western Vorarlberg province. “The conditions are good to train and prepare.”
Players also praised the camp locations in remote valleys, away from media attention and hype.
Since mid-May and until the end of this week, nine World Cup contenders and other national sides have set up camp in Austria. Attracting top teams is no easy feat, but the little nation — itself ranked only 68th in the world by FIFA — has steadily garnered a reputation for well-organised camps.
“Austria is a very safe country, a beautiful country, and of course — and that’s the most important thing — we have to do a good job as organisers, we have to be reliable,” said Nikolaus Pichler, director of the IFCS agency, which brought England and New Zealand to Styria, a southern province.
Now word has got around and teams are flocking to Austria for training. “Managers speak with each other and coaches switch teams. Take Fabio Capello, he came to us with AS Roma, he was here with Real Madrid and now he was here as England manager,” Pichler noted proudly. Costs are relatively limited -— England paid for its 10-day camp in a five-star converted castle in Irdning with the proceeds from a single friendly match against Japan in Graz on May 30, Pichler said.