Austria Hit by Withdrawal of Nine Players

Coach tells reporters dissident players are `cowards'; needs to rethink strategy for Sunday.

Worried by safety concerns, nine Austrian players yesterday walked out of their training camp in Vienna as the squad was preparing for Sunday's World Cup qualifier against Israel.

The move followed FIFA's decision on Monday to allow the game to go ahead as planned despite Austria's efforts to have the match moved to a neutral venue. The statement it issued said that it had "carried out a comprehensive assessment of the situation and contacted the Israeli authorities to request additional safety guarantees, which have since been provided."

"The decision to play the match has been made on the basis of these guarantees," the FIFA statement continued. "Sporting grounds also had a major influence on this ruling, as Israel and Austria are in direct competition for second place in Group seven, which guarantees a place in the play-offs," FIFA said.

Austria have 14 points to the 11 of Israel and need only draw on Sunday to go on to a two-legged playoff against Turkey. The players who decided not to travel are Roland Kirchler, Walter Kogler, Robert Ibertsberger, Alfred Hoertnagl and Edi Glieder from FC Tyrol Innsbruck, Guenther Neukirschner from Sturm Graz, Christian Mayrleb and Martin Hiden of Austria Vienna and Dietmar Kuehbauer of Wolfsburg.

"In the present circumstances, we cannot justify flying to Israel to play sport," Tyrol defender Walter Kogler told reporters. "It is far too dangerous there."

After FIFA's statement, OEFB president Beppo Mauhart convened a meeting with the players at their Vienna hotel and tried to persuade them to make the trip. Unofficially the players were told if the team as a whole were to pull out of the match they would be subject to severe sanctions from FIFA including suspension from the qualifying competition for the 2006 World Cup and a heavy fine including compensation to the IFA for the loss of income from the sale of some 40,000 tickets to the game.

Mauhart's efforts continued yesterday morning but he was unable to persuade the nine players to change their minds and at 9 A.M. convened a press conference where he and coach Otto Baric told of the nine players' refusal to travel.

Baric looked particularly angry and had to eat his words after stating on Monday that if he would be traveling the players would all follow. He said that he was bitterly disappointed but that he would try and put together a strong side nevertheless. He told reporters: "You are brave enough to travel to Israel unlike some players who are cowards."

Mauhart said he had never expected to persuade all the players to change their minds but also said that he did not think that the situation in the region was all that bad. "Israel is not a war zone, even the insurance company would cover us," Mauhart said, adding he remained hopeful that a solution could be found and replacement players galvanized into action before the game.

An hour after the press conference the Tyrol players were on a flight back to Innsbruck. Speaking on behalf of the players, Kogler refused to take the blame and preferred to point the finger at the world governing body instead. "FIFA has shown a lack of sensitivity," and added that he had no intention of traveling to a place as unsafe as Israel.

Kuehbauer said a month ago already that he would not travel and added "the situation hasn't improved there at all."

Selfishness and antipathy

The Austrian FA and the local media has expressed deep anger at the dissenting players, particularly at the Tyrol quintet who are seen as the hard-core renegades. Reporters in Vienna said that without 13 of their top players (Michael Bauer and Thomas Fluegel are suspended while Harald Cherny and Thomas Stranzl are injured) Austria had no realistic chance of holding off the Israelis. They were described as selfish and full of antipathy.

Frank Starnach, the president of Austria Vienna said that he would see to it that his dissenting players would face a club disciplinary committee. The Austrian FA had turned to the management of Tyrol Innsbruck in a last-ditch effort to try and get their players to change their minds, but to no avail.

Interestingly, two of the players who had originally hatched the plan not to travel to Israel eventually changed their mind - goalkeeper Franz Wohlfarth and striker Ivica Vastic.

"The game itself is important, but the aftermath is even more important. We must not let Austrian football suffer the long-term consequences of what could happen (from our failure)," he said.

Vastic said that he had been persuaded after Dinmo Zagreb's trip here last week that the Austrian team would also be safe in Tel Aviv.

Baric's woes

The mass pullout has caused serious problems for Baric, particularly in defense following the withdrawal of his three central defenders (Kogler, Hiden and Neukirschner) and right-sided defender Ibertsberger is also out. Only 17 of the 23 players invited took part in training yesterday with Wohlfarth, who is injured also taking part. If the first-choice `keeper is unable to play his place between the posts will be taken by Alex Manninger of Fiorentina.

Baric called up five players, mainly defenders as replacements yesterday, they are right back Marcus Schopp (Brescia), midfielder Manfred Schmidt (Austria Vienna), central defender Ferdinand Feldhoffer (Sturm Graz), 18-year-old Emmanuel Bogdatz of Bayer Leverkusen's amateur side and under-21 defender Robert Gomatz of Casino Bregenz.

Schmidt, Feldhoffer and Bogdatz joined training yesterday afternoon while the other two will join their team mates today.

Baric will hold two training sessions today but may be forced to change his usual lineup of 3-5-2 to a 4-5-1 formation with the main candidate to take over the central defender's role falling to Gilbert Prilasnig of Greek side Aris Thesaloniki.

Upon hearing that Eyal Berkovic would be fit to play, Baric said that he was not at all surprised: "I didn't doubt for one moment that he would play," he said.

Mauhart tried to smooth over the bad impression which his players had made and said that there was no grudge against Israel or against the players whom he described as "excellent people and truly professional sportsmen."

The Austrian FA also said that their sponsors, who normally travel with the team to every away venue would also not travel here.