Friday, 16 October 2009

32 For 2010: Switzerland

Introducing a new series of features on national teams travelling to the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. We start with Switzerland.

Stealth technologists would do well to examine the characteristics of the Swiss national team. It seems that despite their successful qualification for the World Cup, no-one seems to be paying any attention to them. This is not perhaps the biggest surprise given that Swiss football does not exactly set the pulses racing. When Fulham drew Basel out of the hat in the Europa League, their fans were unlikely to be rendered paralysed with the excitement.

Nope, Swiss football is not terribly exciting and the Swiss national team's record internationally is pretty nondescript. From 1966 to 2006, they have only qualified for the World Cup three times. Also, their reputation took a serious battering after that infamous World Cup 2006 0-0 draw with Ukraine in the Second Round, a match so turgid that pundits and spectators alike were begging for penalties after half an hour just to alleviate the soul crushing tedium.

Furthermore, despite co-hosting the European Championships in 2008, the Schweizer Nati still failed to produce any excitement and the only memorable moment of their dismal campaign remains the tears of their effervescent striker Alex Frei as he limped off during the first match knowing that his tournament was over only minutes after it had begun. For those of you who can't remember (and who could blame you), the Swiss failed to progress to the quarter finals and could only register a single win against a disinterested Portugal. Euro 2008 was a wasted opportunity. The only consolation was that things could not have got any worse... and they didn't because lined up to replace outgoing coach Jakob Kuhn in 2008 was the great Ottmar Hitzfeld.

Hitzfeld had just completed his second stint as Bayern Munich manager. His parting gift to them was another Bundesliga trophy to add to the six other titles he has won in Germany. Hitzfeld is one of only two managers to win the European Cup with two separate clubs, with Bayern and Dortmund (Ernst Happel is the other). He has won trophies in Switzerland, early in his coaching career at Grasshopper Zurich. It is perhaps surprising that he never took the German national team position, however, having been born so close to the Swiss border and coached there, it is fitting that he finally took the step up to international management with the Swiss national team.

Things didn't go exactly to plan at first. After two games the Squadra Nazionale had accumulated just a single point and embarrassingly lost 2-1 at home to Luxembourg. That, however, was to be the first and last defeat of their whole campaign as they only dropped points against Latvia and Israel before it ended. Their last game, a 0-0 draw with the Israelis which secured their qualification, was the only match in the whole campaign in which they failed to score.

Top scorer in the campaign is the Congolese-born striker Blaise Kufo who did not feature in La Nati's Euro 2008 campaign. The FC Twente striker scored six goals. Apart from him, the squad line-up is not drastically different to the one that so failed to impress last year. Strikers Hakan Yakin and Alex Frei are still on the scene, as is Arsenal's reserve centre back Phillipe Senderos and Wolfsburg first choice keeper Diego Benaglio. Gunners fans will be interested to learn that young Johan Djourou made 4 appearances earlier in the campaign.

In fairness, Switzerland could have been drawn in a tougher group. Greece may be the 2004 European champions but their star is waning somewhat. Also, while Israel are improving, they did not prove terribly formidable opposition. The same can also be said of the Latvians. Also, Switzerland only qualified with 21 points which in some groups may not have been enough to get second place. However, the Swiss are going to South Africa in 2010 and the achievement represents a triumph for Ottmar Hitzfeld in his first international qualification campaign.

Switzerland will not exactly be pulling up any trees and will be regarded as weaker European opposition but perhaps they can go some way towards removing those ghastly memories of 2006 and 2008.

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