Marko Arnautovic: Austria's Volatile Striker Is All Grown Up at Last

Ben Lyttleton@@benlytSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 1, 2016

Rory Martin for B/R

Floridsdorfer AC won only four games this season in the Erste Liga, Austria's second division, and were rooted to the bottom of the table from the first matchday on. The club has been relegated back to the regional league from which it emerged in 2014. With the smallest budget in the league, none of this was a surprise.

Floridsdorfer could have done with some help from their most famous son: Marko Arnautovic.

The Stoke City winger's path from a kid at Floridsdorfer to a talisman for Austria, a potential dark horse for Euro 2016 in France, has not been a simple one.

Floridsdorf is a district in the north of Vienna described by locals as "a village in a city." Most of Vienna's population lives south of the Danube, so those in the north—known as Transdanubians—are seen as a little bit different.

Arnautovic's father, Tomislav, worked in the stadium canteen at Floridsdorf. Marko spent hour after hour playing with his elder brother, Danijel, on the caged pitch on Hopfengasse, just behind the nearby sports club. Those hours did not go to waste.


Arnautovic is a true Floridsdorfer. He is different. His temperament as a kid and problems with authority almost cost him his career, which began at FAC in 1995 when he was six. He spent three years there, then three at Austria Vienna before spending a year each at First Vienna FC, back at Austria Vienna and then Rapid Vienna.

Reliant on his talent, entitled and unwilling to work, he proved impossible for any of them to handle. According to Austrian magazine Ballesterer, he was labelled "untrainable."

He was 15 when he returned to FAC and was in the last-chance saloon.

Getty

"Every coach had said that you cannot work with him," Othmar Larisch, a youth coach at FAC at the time, told Ballesterer. "But no one understood how to treat Marko. He came back to us because he knew me and knew that I appreciated him."

At 16, Arnautovic was already playing for the under-23 side and helping it win its league's title.

"He is probably the most talented player we've ever had," Larisch said.

"Opinions in Austria used to be divided about Marko because he had very high expectations to live up to," Floridsdorfer general manager Mathias Slezak told Bleacher Report. "But his performances in England for Stoke City and playing for the Austrian national team have increased the respect there is for him. He is an idol for the young players here even though they are too young to have seen him playing for FAC."

Dutch club FC Twente wanted to take Arnautovic on trial at the end of the 2005-06 season. After discussing the move with Tomislav, Larisch and his assistant, Walter Kuensel, agreed that Arnautovic should go to the Netherlands. The Enschede club gave him a contract after just two days of a two-week trial.

"It was clear to me very quickly that this was a different type of football, but I really wanted it," Arnautovic told Ballesterer.

Arnautovic with Austria team-mate Fuchs in the background
Arnautovic with Austria team-mate Fuchs in the backgroundGetty

The youth team romped to the Dutch title as Arnautovic scored 27 goals in 32 games. Twente's first-team coach, Fred Rutten, took notice. The week before the player turned 18, he threw the teenager on for the last 14 minutes of a 2-0 loss at PSV Eindhoven.

"He always looked confident, but at that moment, he was very nervous, and you had to remember he was just a kid," Rutten told Bleacher Report.

"Marko was not a worker when he was young," Rutten continued. "That was no problem for me because to develop young players, you have to work with them. He showed a lot of skills on the training pitch, but at the beginning, it was not easy for him because talent alone is not enough. You also have to learn how to work.

"I had to teach him that if you want to be a big player, you can use talent, but also you have to put in some dirty work. At that moment, he had problems with that."

That summer, in 2007, Austria were playing in two tournaments: the UEFA European Under-19 Championship on home soil and the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada. Austrian youth coach Hermann Stadler played Arnautovic as a second striker cutting in from the left of a 4-2-3-1, but he had a quiet first game against eventual winners Spain.

The next match was a bad-tempered 1-1 draw with Greece, and Arnautovic was sent off after a second yellow card. In the stands was senior coach Josef Hickersberger, who was not impressed. It set the player back years. He was not picked for the under-20 squad, which finished fourth in a breakout tournament for Rubin Okotie and Zlatko Junuzovic.

The following season, Rutten used the teenager sparingly, bringing him on for about the last 10 minutes of games 13 times but only giving him one start.

Rutten said Twente had a training camp in Arnhem three days before a play-off match. The coach, known for being a disciplinarian, set up two four-on-four matches on a small pitch. But he told Arnautovic that he had to watch the games and could not play in them.

"On that trip, he had only done what he wanted to do. There was no concern for the team or for anything else," Rutten said. "I knew that he liked that particular game because there were always lots of scoring chances, but I did not let him play. He was very proud, and that made him angry. He tried to take the ball, and I said, 'No! If you want to be a big player, you need to work.' That moment was important for him. He will remember it, too."

Rutten's message finally got through, and when Arnautovic was 19, he scored three times in his first three Eredivisie appearances and became a regular. He made his debut for the Austria senior team—in a 1-1 draw in the Faroe Islands—one week before his first Twente goal. But in typical style, his path to the national team was just beginning to get complicated.

Arnautovic in Euro 2016 qualifying action against Montenegro
Arnautovic in Euro 2016 qualifying action against MontenegroGetty

Following the draw with the Faroes, Austria suffered a 3-1 home defeat to Serbia. Manager Karel Bruckner lost his job four-and-a-half months later. His successor, Dietmar Constantini, gave Arnautovic one game, a 2-1 win over Romania, but he did not play again for Austria for 18 months, a period that included a foot injury and an ill-fated spell at Inter Milan.

But after just one season as a Twente regular, offers were coming in from big clubs abroad. In summer 2009, Twente chairman Joop Munsterman accepted a bid from Chelsea. Arnautovic went to England but failed a medical, which showed he had a fractured foot. Instead, he moved to Inter on a one-year loan with an option to purchase.

The injury slowed his adaptation into the squad, and his behaviour was no help. In a typical incident, he told a Vienna policeman: "Shut up. I earn so much I can buy your life."

He made three appearances as a substitute, none in Europe, in Inter's historic treble-winning season. The competition was tough: Diego Milito, Samuel Eto'o, Goran Pandev and Mario Balotelli were in front of him.

Werder Bremen paid €6.5 million for him in summer 2010, and though his time in Germany was peppered with controversy—the last of several incidents that earned the wrath of management was when he called the city "a dump" on TV—it was the period in which he made his mark for the national team.

Arnautovic (right) with Stoke team-mate Xherdan Shaqiri
Arnautovic (right) with Stoke team-mate Xherdan ShaqiriAlex Livesey/Getty Images

With Constantini in charge, Arnautovic scored his first two international goals in October 2010 against Azerbaijan. The same month, he scored for Bremen in a UEFA Champions League tie at Twente. In February 2011, he scored for Austria in a loss in the Netherlands.

He has kept his place in the national side ever since and developed a dangerous partnership with captain Christian Fuchs on the left flank of the 4-2-3-1 system under Marcel Koller.

"I know a lot of players with his talent that have not made it," said Rutten, his first club coach. "But you can see now what he is capable of doing. He can score, create and make things happen. But he also plays with responsibility. He can do big things this summer, and I think he's ready for a Champions League team as well."

Arnautovic said that fatherhood—his daughter, Emilia, will be four in July—and the move to England have calmed him down. He joined Stoke for a reported £2 million in summer 2013 and since then has only appeared in newspapers for the right reasons.

"I think if you've never met me, then you'd think I was hard work," he told SoccerBible magazine recently. "People used to say I was arrogant and unfriendly, but now I am friendly and happy to help out."

Said Rutten: "What has surprised me is that he has become so consistent. In the past, that was harder for him. When I watch him play now, I can see that he's grown up. It's nice for me to see a player I worked with become the player I hoped he might be. That makes me proud."

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