Austria’s continuing hopes of making the World Cup play-offs are in no small part due tothe strength in the air of libero Michael Baur.

His powerfully headed goals in the qualifiers against Spain in October, and Bosnia and Israel in March, make him Austria’s best goalscoring defender since the late Bruno Pezzey two decades ago.

“My goals against Spain and Bosnia were very similar,” recalls Baur, the 32-year-old FC Tirol skipper. “With his fantastic left foot, Andy Herzog whips in corners which are very hard to defend against, andit was not too difficult for me to get my head on the ball and score. “The Israel game was a mixed experience for me. I put through my own goal early on, headed the equaliser a few minutes later, and then gave away a penalty which our keeper did well to save.”

Despite the libero’s recent success, his international career hasbeen a stop-go affair. Initially, the signs were good. At the end of his first season in the Austrian top flight, with Wacker Innsbruck (now FC Tirol), he was a non-playing member of the Italia 90 squad and during the early 1990s became a regular for the national side. But he was dropped after a poor display in a 2-1 home defeat by Scotland in April 1994, and his reputation was further tarnished by an unhappy six-month spell at Japanese side Urawa Reds in 1997.

Although Baur’s form did pick up on his return to FC Tirol, he wasnever really in contention for a place at France 98, and even when Otto Baric replaced Herbert Prohaska as national coach in March 1999, Baur remained out in the cold.

But Baric could not fail to notice Baur’s leadership, tenacity and aerial threat in FC Tirol’s run to the Austrian League title last season. Sure enough, he chose to place him at the heart of his side’s World Cup drive, bringing him back for their first qualifier, a 1-0 win in Liechtenstein.

It has proved an inspired move and now everybody is asking why Baur disappeared from the international map. The player, himself, gives a frank answer, saying: “There were phases in my career when I wasn’t playing so well. It didn’t help that my time in Japan was so disappointing. My family didn’t feel at ease and I couldn’t get used to the mentality there.”

It is ironic, then, that he is now spearheading

Club FC Tirol Innsbruck
Country Austria
Born April 16, 1969, in Innsbruck
Previous clubs SV Innsbruck, IAC, FC Wacker Innsbruck (now FC Tirol), Urawa Reds (Jap)
International debut August 1990, v Switzerland
International caps 28 (5 goals)
Honours Austrian League 1990, 2000; Austrian Cup 1993