Switzerland are a curious footballing nation. The national team have always been about as neutral as their country’s reputation, and nowhere near as useful as their army knives. Domestically, the Swiss Super League attracts little interest beyond its landlocked borders with the continental ruling class of France, Germany and Italy, and no Swiss club has ever contested a European final. The Super League is currently ranked the 13th strongest in Europe by UEFA’s coefficients, on par with the likes of the Danish, Belgian and Greek leagues and seems no natural destination for any of the continent’s top names. It is hard to argue for any world-class player the nation have produced, or team of great distinction. Yet, somehow the Swiss are not only surviving, but flourishing. Their Under-17 teams have won the 2002 European Championships and the 2009 World Cup, and once again the seniors find themselves at a major tournament.
To put it into context, Switzerland has a population of 7.7m, approximately 10 times less than that of Germany. The geography of the land and prosperity of large proportions of its population means there is a diverse spread of sporting and cultural activities. However, as usual, football remains the game of the masses and the Swiss uprising has a strong eastern European influence, with many repatriated Balkan and Turkish players progressing through the youth systems. Even still, there is no star turn. Approximately half of the Nati are spread across various European leagues, but follow the Swiss narrative of keeping a low profile. Eight of their most recent selections play in the Bundesliga, five in Serie A, four in Ligue 1, with a couple more popping up in England, Russia and the Netherlands. Although interestingly, no player outside of the FC Zurich contingent play for clubs competing in this season’s Champions League, confirming the theory that Swiss football falls short of the Alpha dominants. South Africa will be their third World Cup out of the last five having been in three of the last four European Championships as well. At these tournaments the Schweizer Nati have made little headway and have gone home well before the business end of things. Can 2010 see the new breed break the mould? Or will it be more of the polite pleasantries?
If they are to make any kind of lasting impression, then they’ve certainly got the right man in charge. Ottmar Hitzfeld has won plenty, including seven German titles and two European Cups, and has been voted the best Bayern Munich and Bundesliga manager of all time. Surprisingly this is his first venture into international management. Hitzfeld took over from Kobi Kuhn after the limp showing on home turf in the 2008 European Championships, but the Hitzfeld reign got off to a shaky start. In a very friendly World Cup qualifying group, the Nati started with a draw in Latvia and an embarrassing home loss to Luxembourg. But sure enough, things soon came together and they topped Group Two, which also featured the unremarkable Greece, Israel and Moldova. Overall, Hitzfeld’s experience more than anything could be vital in guiding a relatively young and inexperienced squad. Not many of the side have played under such exposure – their domestic league attracts average attendances of around 10 000, with Basel’s St Jakob Park the largest with a capacity of 42 500. The general consensus was that the side choked during the 2008 European Championships due to a combination of naivety and nerves with a nation in waiting.
In terms of personnel, Hitzfeld is armed with a squad of tactically and technically adept players, but there is nothing much beyond the prototype of the decent, but essentially ordinary Swiss footballer. The captain and talisman is Alexander Frei, who scored goals with Rennes and Borussia Dortmund but has now returned to FC Basel. Frei is unlikely to give many defenders sleepless nights, but as an astute penalty-box operator and cool finisher, the 30-year-old boasts 40 international goals in 73 games, a better strike rate than Wayne Rooney. Elsewhere in the side, the Premier League duo of Phillipe Senderos and Johann Djourou play at the back but have often been found wanting against the League’s top marksmen. Udinese’s Gokhan Inler is the midfield engine and offers plenty going both ways, but will mainly be relied upon to give the backline some extra protection. The creative force will come from Valon Behrami, Tranquillo Barnetta and Hakan Yakin, but with no genuine game-winner, any success in the competition will require a huge collective effort.
Hitzfeld usually operates a traditional 4-4-2 but is shrewd enough to adapt. The modus operandi could revert to a 4-5-1 type to bolster the midfield against superior opposition. Under Hitzfeld’s stewardship they should be well-orientated, yet there is a glaring dearth of attacking guile. At Germany 2006, they managed to get through the group without scoring a goal, before drawing 0-0 with Ukraine, and missing all their spot-kicks in the shoot-out. This impotency has yet to be addressed. Their style is essentially a mid-tempo short-passing game, with no dynamic forward threats. Given their limitations it will be difficult to control games against better sides, and a development of a clever counter-attacking game may be the most cerebral approach.
The group is as good or bad as could be expected. Spain should boss it and the unknown Hondurans could go either way. Switzerland’s progress may come down to the clash with Chile, a good barometer to see how good this side actually are. Progression is rewarded with the misfortune of meeting one of the survivors of the ‘Group of Death’, so getting past the second round would be considered a huge success, with qualification from the Group a realistic goal.
Sat 26th in the FIFA World Rankings, the Swiss remain on the fringes of the elite and their tournament odds of 200/1 reflect the challenge they face. The squad lacks any real depth or difference, and despite the success of the various youth teams, the chances of ‘Der General’s’ men replicating that is slim. The new wave of Swiss footballers may go on to become a golden generation, but the current one are very much beige.