Steely Sabitzer sets out his stall

Thursday 23 March 2023 07:00

Marcel Sabitzer had big footsteps to follow when growing up as his father, Herfried, was an international footballer of some repute.

Sabitzer Senior played six times for Austria, scoring in a European Championship qualifier against Liechtenstein in 1995, and represented several of the country's top sides, including LASK Linz, a club that Manchester United faced in 2020.

It meant an upbringing within professional football for the Manchester United loanee, who had to deal with all that inevitably happens when you are a making your way as a son of a famous player. Even the fact his dad's nickname 'Sabi' was automatically passed on, possibly felt out of his control, and it necessitated a need for a strong mindset and mentality.

Read anything on Marcel and this is what you will surely uncover about him. He set his stall out early to become a professional footballer but was striving for more even beyond that, and certainly endeavouring to plough his own furrow.

It was not enough to merely succeed in his homeland, as Herfried had done, his horizons would spread further and he is honest enough to admit one of his ambitions was to become one of Austria's very best players, who will be remembered in years to come.

Marcel Sabitzer on Austria Under-21 duty.

In an exclusive interview for the latest edition of Inside United, the official magazine's cover star was generous with his time and happy to provide more insight into his background and character, following the deadline-day loan move to Old Trafford from Bayern Munich.

The drive and determination within him was obvious and it stemmed from those early days, developing almost a tunnel vision to succeed in making his mark in the game.

"I was born in Upper Austria," he told us. "But I spent my childhood in Graz. It’s in the south, near Slovenia. I had a good time there. I started football early and really enjoyed the time. When I had the nine years [at school] done, I was out and just focused on football and then it was my main goal – to become a professional footballer. School wasn’t my big topic in my youth.

"From a very young age, I was following him [his father] in the dressing rooms, the training facilities. So I was always close to football. As I said, my dream was always becoming a professional so I had a good childhood with my father and seeing him growing as a big player in Austria. Yeah, I was enjoying it but I knew, at a very young age, I would have my own footsteps and it worked out fine."

There was clearly extra pressure on Sabitzer within youth football, as is the case with all youngsters whose fathers have already made a successful career in the game. The secret appeared to be to work harder than anybody else and focus on a simple goal: to somehow, one day, surpass Herfried's notable achievements.

"Yes, in the first years [there was pressure]," he admitted. "You know, there was a lot of noise around. ‘Oh, he is just playing because of his father’. But, yeah, in the end, they see I am here and it was okay that I was playing a lot in the youth [sides]. I was a good talent and I was working hard and I think people saw that earlier.

"From very young, I was very focused on it. I was seeing my dad playing in the [Austrian] Bundesliga, and in the national team, so that was my goal – to be better than him [laughs]. I was focused on that.”

Now he has 68 caps for Austria, with more likely to follow during this international break, does he tell his dad he has achieved this aim? Again, there was a laugh from the versatile midfielder.

"We had chats in the past but, yeah, he’s proud and I’m talking to him a lot," he smiled. "So he is a proud dad.”

There is TV footage of a 13-year-old Marcel suggesting to the interviewer that he wanted to play abroad, the proof documented for all to see that this was a highly ambitious schoolboy intent not only on chasing his dreams, but making them a reality.

“I remember the interview!" he declared. "Yes, it’s funny to see now but, as I said before, I was focused on that, you know. My aim was going out from Austria and being a big player from Austria in the history. I am on my way to that. I am enjoying my life as a professional footballer outside the country. I’ll keep doing my thing and, hopefully, a lot of guys will say he was a top player.”

Such a desire to prove his talents will only serve Sabitzer well at United, where he has found team-mates with a similar mindset and approach. With a maiden goal under his belt, the brilliantly improvised flick in the Emirates FA Cup quarter-final win over Fulham that sent the Reds back to Wembley, he should return from European Championship qualifying duty with even more confidence and a spring in his step.

Yet you sense the 29-year-old is not the sort of guy who would ever lose focus on what he is trying to achieve. 

Even in his early career, Marcel Sabitzer has always appreciated honesty.

In addition to his mindset, something that he has pointed out in previous interviews is how much he values honesty. It is a trait that the Austrian feels can only be beneficial for all parties.

“Yes, 100 per cent," he asserted when asked about the topic. "I think that’s one of the biggest things. You know, also the mentality – winning games and being on point. When you are on the pitch, giving it your all, you know, and just prove yourself. Be honest with the guys and live your life on the pitch.

"We have a lot of these guys [winners]. It’s a massive group with a good mentality. I am very happy to be in this group.

"Football has a lot of ups and downs and you have to be strong, mentally strong, and focused on what’s going on. It helped me a lot in difficult times."

Hopefully, there are more ups just around the corner for Marcel in the final two months of the campaign, and there is no doubt he'll be fully prepared for the challenges that lie ahead at home and abroad.

Read the interview in full in this month's Inside United, the official club magazine.