While COVID-19 raged across the world in 2020, nowhere in Europe was the decision to get back onto the football field more divided than in Austria.
On the one side, some organizations feared the developmental impact of a lost campaign. Others feared the pandemic uncertainty and the increased injury risk of the short turnaround associated with a delayed and shortened season. Ultimately, only two teams would strap on the shoulder pads.
As the leader of one of those two teams, Projekt Spielberg Graz Giants head coach Martin Kocian is well aware of every facet of that debate. When it came to a decision however, the choice for the Giants was an incredibly simple one.
“I can see both sides there. In life, nothing is only black or white,” Kocian says. “I see the negatives in the decision to play, but I think in our case, the positives of playing were much bigger.”
As an organization, Graz found itself in a unique position in 2020 where gameplay was a necessity for the long term success of an extremely inexperienced group of players.
“After the 2019 season, a lot of our older experienced players retired and we had a lot of new guys moving up from our youth program who did not have any experience on the AFL level. It was important for us to keep practicing, to get better and give them the chance to play in the games and get better at the AFL level,” Kocian explains.
That assessment might actually be an understatement. On defense alone, the Giants had eight new starters in 2020, most of whom were born in 2001. The same was true on offense, making for a team that was incredibly raw.
“We have a one coach who’s a German guy and he coaches youth football there. He said 90% of this team would still play youth football in Germany,” Kocian notes. “The rules are a little different in Austria, everything goes a little faster here.”
The inexperience showed in their championship showcase against the Dacia Vienna Vikings, where the Giants were commandingly swept in three games of the potential five game series. While the Giants couldn’t match up against a veteran organization, things did begin to click for some of the young corps in the final game.
Without that opportunity to grow, Kocian believes his team would be much further behind in their development than they are now.
“Unfortunately, last year was not long enough for us, even if it was very beneficial for us. Probably if we would not have done that, we would be starting even more behind this year,” he admits.
“We would have needed to have the whole regular season to play different teams, to really have the time to prepare, to make a mistake but then have a chance to learn from our mistake and do a little better next time. Obviously we realized we would not play our best football in the beginning of the season, but hoped for when the playoffs would come that we could play good football. How it was, we were dropped immediately to the playoffs and our team was not ready at that time.”
A season-opening loss to the Danube Dragons proves Graz isn’t quite where they need to be yet either, but Kocian has high expectations for his club with the advantage of a full season to develop. There will be early challenges but a contender could form late in the year.
“We got some people back who are leaders on the team who didn’t play last year and with a young, hungry team, the potential is definitely there. The question is how fast can we put everything together and get the play up to our potential?,” Kocian says.
“If we do make it up to our potential, I believe the Austrian Bowl is realistic for us.”
That would would be an incredible accomplishment for a young team in a year where the Giants organization is celebrating its 40th anniversary, but Kocian doesn’t want to get ahead of himself either. Proper development will be slow and means taking the season one week at a time, never looking further than the next win.
“The goal is going to be to make those frequent, small steps where at the end we can be sitting going ‘Hey, we achieved something this year’,” Kocian smiles.
If the Graz Giants can do that, there will be no questioning their decision to suit up in 2020.