Kobi Kuhn, the Swiss coach, is a well-dressed older man with white hair and an open face, who looks like a cheery financial adviser. That is why it was surprising, after Switzerland got knocked out of last year’s World Cup, to see him struggling not to cry.
It was a hot midnight in Cologne. Switzerland were going home after losing to Ukraine on penalties, but they hadn’t conceded a goal during the whole tournament. Already, Kuhn was looking ahead to Euro 2008, which his country would co-host with Austria. “More than three years ago, I did a report,” he said. “I wrote: ‘Switzerland, champions of Europe 2008.’ It was a little exaggerated, but…”
We will soon find out whether it was exaggerated. Ludicrous as Kuhn’s report might sound, many now find it plausible. Switzerland – never previously a football country – has climbed a mountain fast.
Rewind to Euro 2004: a Sunday in Leiria, a Portuguese provincial town, invaded for a day by macho Croat and near-silent Swiss supporters. The two teams hacked out a 0-0 draw, which in its violence and lack of technique evoked lower-division football in south London. Some Swiss players had peculiar shapes. The match was a 90-minute argument for reducing the European championship from 16 teams back to eight. Later in the tournament, Switzerland lost comfortably to England and France.
Yet even then there were hints of a future. Their only goal at Euro 2004, against France, came from Johan Volanthen, then aged 18 years, four months and 20 days, the youngest man ever to score at a European Championship.
At some point in the 1990s, those who run Swiss football, realising that the present was always miserable, had bet on the future. They set up five “performance centres”, where talented schoolboys could train twice daily between classes. In 2002, Switzerland won the under-17 European Championship. Two members of that side, the captain Philippe Senderos and Tranquillo Barnetta, now help carry Kuhn’s team. Senderos, who plays for Arsenal, is possibly the most successful Swiss ever in European club football, which admittedly isn’t saying much.
At last year’s World Cup, five Swiss players were aged 21 or under. Moreover, Senderos, Barnetta, Vonlanthen and several others are secondos: children of immigrant parents, second-generation Swiss. Kuhn says: “We are a mirror of Swiss society, perhaps slightly exaggerated. Twenty per cent of the Swiss population are foreigners, and perhaps the same proportion again is already integrated.”
And so a nation that has just given the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s party more votes than any other political party since the first world war, cheers on a bunch of immigrant youths.
Entering the last World Cup, Kuhn, the object of a Mao-like cult in Switzerland, proclaimed this “probably the most successful epoch of our football”.
What the Swiss call their “petit-Suiss-Komplex” was fading. After beating South Korea, Kuhn said: “There is a euphoria in the country that we’ve never known. It will certainly cool off.”
For foreigners at least, it cooled off fast. All the talk about senior Swiss bankers with their faces painted dissolved before the tedium of Switzerland-Ukraine. It was possibly the nadir of 10,000 years of human civilisation and, amid stiff competition, the dullest international football match since Switzerland-Croatia in 2004. In 120 minutes, the Swiss didn’t produce one unexpected pass or dribble or moment from the playground. There was barely a move over the flanks, not one player anyone would pay to watch. In two years, the Swiss had simply ascended from incompetence to mediocrity. The game inevitably finished 0-0, after which Switzerland couldn’t even score a penalty.
The only Swiss player who transcends anonymity is their striker, Alexander Frei. He is a footballer whose personality shines through in everything he does. In Frei’s case that is not necessarily a compliment, but even his spitting and constant handling of the ball reveal a will to win. So does the pace at which he plays, often too fast for his own technique. For his goal against South Korea, it typified him that he played on after the linesman had flagged and all other players had stopped.
Frei’s team mates are competent and forgettable. Vonlanthen has risen no further since Euro 2004 than Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. Guus Hiddink, the sage of global football who coached him at PSV Eindhoven, said Vonlanthen sometimes grew so tense that his body went rigid, robbing him of his natural speed. Hiddink told him: “You can make 1,000 mistakes, but I want to see you laughing on the field once.” The coach said Vonlanthen excelled at languages, which suggested that part of his brain was strong, but his spatial awareness was not. Hiddink believed that because Switzerland wasn’t spoiled for great footballers it had overhyped Vonlanthen’s potential.
Vonlanthen should nonetheless make Kuhn’s side for Euro 2008, which could read like this: Pascal Zuberbühler, Phillip Degen, Senderos, Patrick Müller, Ludovic Magnin, Blerim Dzemaili, Gökhan Inler, Daniel Gygax, Vonlanthen, Barnetta and Frei. However, several of them have recently succumbed to an improbable plague of injuries.
Switzerland can win the European championship. The tournament’s history shows that anyone can. But if they do, they might make the Greek winners of 2004 look like Pele’s glorious Brazil in comparison.
Get alerts on USSR when a new story is published