After the Europa League draw in December, Wolfsberger AC took the opportunity to extend a helping hand to their last-32 opponents, Tottenham Hotspur. Posting a picture of José Mourinho and a speech bubble saying, “Can anybody tell me where Wolfsberg is?” they added: “If you can’t find us, we will help you” with a winking emoji and, “Looking forward to seeing you @SpursOfficial”.
Welcome to Wolfsberg, José. This is not Wolfsburg, the German Bundesliga side sponsored and powered by Volkswagen. This is Wolfsberger AC, from the tiny town of Wolfsberg in southern Austria, not far from the Slovenian border. Their most famous supporter is a priest.
That is not to say Tottenham will have an easy game on Thursday in the first leg, moved to Budapest.
The Wolfsberg assistant coach, Mo Sahli, told the Guardian this week that they were approaching the tie with belief rather than apprehension. “Tottenham is the biggest club WAC has ever faced,” he said. “We are well aware of our role as underdogs and know Tottenham are the favourites but every game starts 0-0. We are really looking forward to these games.”
Sahli, who has coached at RB Salzburg and FC Liefering, has been at Wolfsberg since summer 2019 and shot to fame, at least in his native Tunisia, when he became caretaker in November 2019 and the first African manager to gain a point in a European club competition with a 2-2 draw with Roma in the Europa League group stage. He had not fully understood his achievement until he returned home to an outpouring of adulation from local media.
He returned to his role as assistant when the club appointed Ferdinand Feldhofer in December 2019 and this season they have reached the Europa League knockout stage for the first time. Last season they were eliminated at the group stage despite two draws against Roma and a stunning 4-0 win at Borussia Mönchengladbach.
It is a remarkable achievement for WAC (Wolfsberger Athletik Club), which was founded in 1931 but led a quiet life until Dietmar Riegler, a former player turned businessman, became president in 2007, bringing capital and leadership as well as a joining of forces with another local team, SK St Andrä. The ascent was rapid, leading to promotion into the Austrian Bundesliga for the first time in 2013.
After six consecutive years in the top flight, the team finished third in 2019, leading to their first European campaign, and they followed that with another third place. This season they navigated the group stage successfully, finishing above Feyenoord and CSKA Moscow to set up this tie with Spurs.
The team play a rapid and hard-pressing style of football – potentially bad news for Mourinho after he admitted his players were tired after the defeat against Manchester City. Wolfsberg may be without last season’s goalscoring hero, Shon Weissman, who joined Real Valladolid in August, but the captain Michael Liendl has 12 goals this season from his attacking midfield role and Dejan Joveljic, on loan from Eintracht Frankfurt, is the No 10.
But it is not only the players on the pitch whom Spurs come up against. Krzysztof Jacek Kranicki became the club’s official priest at the start of the year, giving him the opportunity to be there “on the ground for both the team and for the fans”, he told meinbezirk.at. It means that fans and players, according to the local bishop, Josef Marketz, “are helped by the love and belief of God and that they can go be brave and full of elan in life as well as the games”.
Kranicki became well known locally as a supporter of the team after ringing the main church bells following the 4-0 victory against Mönchengladbach and celebrating a holy mass at the Vatican for 200 WAC fans who had travelled to watch their club play Roma in 2019.
The club have come a long way in a short time and the games against Tottenham will be another milestone. Whatever happens against Mourinho’s Spurs, WAC have already won.