Swiss youth policy comes to fruition

Switzerland’s last two World Cup appearances, in 2006 and 2010, have hardly set the competition on fire. In 2006 they became the first team to be knocked out without conceding a goal after losing on penalties to Ukraine after a sterile 0-0 draw, and they only scored four themselves in as many games. Four years later, they managed one goal for and one against in three outings as they fell at the first hurdle.

This time, hopefully, it should be different. The Swiss will travel to Brazil with a young, attacking side which includes a number of players from the sides that won the Under-17 World Cup in 2009 and reached the Final of the 2011 European Under-21 Championship.

The Swiss federation runs a well-developed youth programme and has tapped successfully into the country’s large immigrant community. Several members of the squad are from families that moved to Switzerland from the Balkans during the 1990s. Players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Haris Seferovic and Josip Drmic, the feisty Stefan Lichtsteiner and Gokhan Inler, give the team plenty of attacking options, not to mention bite.

In fact, the weakness is probably now the defence where Philippe Sendoros, Johan Djourou and Steve Von Bergen have all had unhappy experiences at club level. Contrary to the national stereotype, the side has become quite unpredictable. They can beat anyone on their day, as they showed with a friendly win over Brazil in Basle last year. But they are also prone to lapses such as the 4-4 draw at home to Iceland in the qualifiers, where they squandered a 4-1 lead.

Veteran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, who will retire after the tournament, has set the last 16 as his first target – a realistic if not easy option given that the Swiss struggle against Latin American opposition and must face Honduras and Ecuador. And he has already admitted that the heat and humidity will be a challenge for his side, who will have to adjust their pressing style.

Despite the respectable results over the past few years, Switzerland is not a country which is passionate for football and it is often hard to believe that the World Cup is just around the corner. In fact, the sport has an image problem in the country, thanks to the lingering problem of crowd violence and partly due to the goings-on at FIFA, whose presence is seen by many Swiss as something of an embarrassment.

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