The secret behind Austria’s successful run to the main round in Vienna could have something to do with a famous former Sweden international and his two goalkeepers.
Ales Pajovic’s side have exceeded expectations already at this championship, with the eye-catching performances of Thomas Bauer and Thomas Eichberger one of the highlights of the co-hosts’ unbeaten march through the preliminary round.
However, it is the work of legendary Swede Mattias Andersson that helps both players pull off what sometimes seem the impossible when they are blocking shots that are travelling at speeds of up to 122 km/h.
Andersson, who lifted the EHF EURO title in Croatia in 2000, is the Austrian goalkeeper coach but, as the 41-year-old explains, there is nothing spectacular about his method – just one simple message to his two keepers.
“I tell them to enjoy it,” says the former SG Flensburg-Handewitt man, who made 141 appearances in the blue and yellow of Sweden.
“My main advice is that they should appreciate there will be ups and downs during a tournament. During a game, I tell them to try and stay calm and not to think too much about the match, just to live it. Thinking too much about it can be a problem and often by the time you think, it’s too late.”
For Eichberger, who was named Grundfos Player of the Match in Austria’s 32:28 win over North Macedonia on Tuesday, where an inspired display saw him register 15 saves, the mentoring he has received from Andersson – and from teammate Bauer – has been essential.
“Mattias is incredible, I try to take as much as I can do from the things he tells me to do in games,” says Eichberger.
“He said just said ‘be ready, you can come on during the tournament and onto the court at any second’. He told me to enjoy the game time when you’re out there.
“He is just so professional, so focused. He’s helped me out a lot. Tommy, too. Tommy gives me tips from the sidelines and helps build my confidence, that’s very important for me.
“You need two goalkeepers at a tournament because it’s tough. We have four very hard games in front of us and I think Tommy will play a big role in the main round. We will pushing and helping each other.
“Tommy is a very experienced goalkeeper, a good player who has played in the [VELUX EHF] Champions League. I never expected to play such a big role in the first three games but I’m really happy with the way it is working out.”
Eichberger had only played three times for Austria before the tournament, but Andersson has been hugely encouraged by the keeper’s performances despite his lack of experience at international level.
“Tommy came on in the first two games and did very well,” explains the coach. “We made a decision because for now he’s been in better shape.
“He has done great so far; he stays calm, he’s attentive, he wants to learn and he’s always listening during games, especially in the last match. He takes things what you tell him on board, even during the match, and uses it later in the game and I’m glad to see that.”
While both Eichberger and Bauer appreciate their coach’s influence and support, Andersson is happy to play down his role in the goalkeepers' performance and development.
“I need to be supportive – that’s my main role as I am not the one who goes onto the court,” says the Swede. “The keeper is the one that has to do to the work. I’m just there to help before, during and after the match or in training to do my best to pass on my experience.
“We’ve talked about what it means to play in a championship at home and the pressures that come with it. How to approach certain games, how to prepare for the game and then how to work in the game itself. I’ll tell them anything that can they change during or before the game.
“There are ups and downs in any tournament and in any season, we knew in the beginning that we need both goalkeepers and that’s still the case.”
After cruising through the preliminary round, Austria’s attention turns to matches against reigning champions Spain and neighbours Germany and Croatia in the main round.
However, even though he acknowledges the tests will be tougher, Andersson admits training will be no different.
“It’ll be the same preparation and the same work, nothing will change,” he says. “It’s important to keep the same routine. They are just other teams. Of course it’s the main round so it should be more difficult, but they are just other teams.
“But we are not looking too far ahead, we’ll take it step by step. It was a big thing for us to qualify for the main round and now we’re there we want to take the step next.”
With the tournament also co-hosted in Sweden, Andersson would love a trip back home to Stockholm for the final weekend – especially as the tournament is his last in his role with Austria before he begins his new job for the German national team.
Eichberger doesn’t want to think about that just yet – he wants to learn as much from Andersson before he makes his move to Germany.
“It’s a shame he’s leaving at the end of the tournament but I’m very happy to have had one year with him in the national team, it’s been awesome,” smiles Eichberger.
“We’ll keep working hard and hopefully we’ll have four more games like our last one in the main round. Maybe we will surprise some people and keep dreaming.”
— EHF EURO (@EHFEURO) January 16, 2020