SWITZERLAND'S NEW DAWN

Switzerland’s 1-0 victory over Spain caused a seismic upset at last year’s World Cup. The result galvanised the Swiss who now find themselves with a blossoming talent pool at their disposal.

In terms of recent football pedigree, Switzerland barely cause a ripple in the waters. Since two World Cup quarter-finals in the 1930s and another on home soil in 1958, the Swiss have reached the World Cup second round just once. Their European Championships record is similarly thin on the ground. A 2-0 victory over Portugal in 2008’s group stage was their maiden win in the tournament. Of course, Portugal had already walked the group, and Switzerland only reached the tournament through joint hosting it with Austria.

Their second round exit to Ukraine in 2006’s World Cup without conceding – the first example of this in any World Cup – brought much promise. But more impressive was their audacious 1-0 victory over eventual champions Spain in the 2010 World Cup. That Herculean scalp has ushered in a watershed for change.

Switzerland are no longer a limited, merely functional rear-guard outfit. With the likes of 19-year-old maverick Xherdan Shaqiri and 20-year-old Admir Mehmedi adding much needed swagger to a previously unattractive side, there are now lofty ambitions on the horizon.

After winning the under-17s World Cup in 2009, this new crop of youngsters has triggered a swelling belief in Swiss football. The next generation recently finished as runners-up to a technically blessed Spanish side in the under-21s European Championships.

Heavily fancied before the tournament in Denmark, Shaqiri and Mehmedi arrived after their bows for the full squad. Basel’s latest wunderkind Shaqiri announced his credentials with a solo goal against a trumpeted yet eventually disappointing Denmark side. In the group A clash, the playmaker turned on a sixpence and drove forwards with his enormous thighs and stocky physique eluding numerous Danish challenges. He veered left and arrowed a shot into the bottom right-hand corner, darting the ball across Danish goalkeeper Mikkel Andersen.

Pierluigi Tami’s men next overcame Iceland 2-0 – goals coming from a Fabian Frei bullet volley and Innocent Emeghara’s team goal. They continued their plough through group A with a 3-0 mauling of Belarus. Mehmedi’s brace - a penalty and a stealthy effort after a Belarusian error – made it two before Parma’s Rolf Feltscher came on and drilled home from an acute angle.

If Tami barely broke sweat during the first three matches, he’d surely have needed a new shirt after the semi-final. They left it late, very late. At 0-0, with just moments remaining against a heralded Czech side, Mehmedi advanced forwards with few options. Like every great marksman, the intuitive Mehmedi saw a gap and calmly placed the ball home from 25 yards out. It was a touch of magic – a chance nobody on the pitch had anticipated.

But in the final, Spain, masterful pioneers of expressive football, dealt a dose of revenge for their World Cup loss. They eased to a 2-0 victory and again showed their love of stroking the ball around the pitch, passing the opposition into submission then clinically driving the knife in.

Spain won because of their individual talents. Valencia’s Juan Mata provided the electricity to their attacks and the fact that he is only on the fringes of the Spanish full side is frightening. More so was the fact that they could afford to leave Bojan Krkic, a vastly experienced Champions League winner with Barcelona, on the bench. His club mates Thiago Alcantra and Jeffren meant that Spain had an embarrassment of Barcelona riches on their hands.

For Switzerland though, it really was a team effort. Shaqiri was majestic with his magnetic control and forthright running. He also has a muscular build belying his stunted height of 5 foot 7 inches. His reputation has ballooned since last month’s tournament, but Switzerland’s emergence was far more of a collective input than only down to Shaqiri.

Luigi’s side wove seamlessly into their 4-3-3 formation, with Shariqi and Emeghara flanking the unerring finisher Mehmedi. From goalkeeper Yann Sommer of Basel, to every other player in red, they all laboured hard. A ruthless penalty-box controller, Sommer was an all conquering force, an immovable object unbeaten for 431 minutes before Ander Herrera’s opener for Spain in the final.

In front of him, FC Zurich’s swashbuckling full-back Phillippe Koch dazzled with his boundless energy on both sides of the half-way line. Sassuolo’s Jonathan Rossini was also a dominant influence in a shatterproof defence that conceded just twice throughout the tournament. A part of that should be credited to defensive midfielder Fabian Lustenberger, the mop-haired Hertha Berlin 23-year-old.

The most striking thing about Switzerland was the velocity of their attacks and breaks. With Koch hurtling down the right and Shaqiri also roaming inside, both men were too fast and were fouled a combined 33 times in Denmark. Basel’s 18-year-old Granit Xhaka also continued his explosive rise to fame. After appearing for the under-17s who won the World Cup in 2009, this athletic midfielder with a versatile range of passing only made his debut for the under 21s in November 2010. Switzerland senior team manager Ottmar Hitzfeld has taken him under his wing and gave the teenager his international debut against England in June.

Of course, then there’s the triumvirate of Shaqiri, Mehmedi and Emeghara spearheading Switzerland’s attack. Like Shaqiri and Xhaka, both born in Kosovo, Emeghara is a naturalised Swiss. Last October, the Nigerian-born Grasshoppers man revealed his desire to represent Switzerland. Adept at charging from deep as well as receiving the ball, Emeghara rattled home 17 goals last season for Winterthur in the Swiss second tier. FC Zurich’s Mehmedi is a throwback to the surgically precise finishers of Serie A in the 90s – think Gabriel Batistuta with more industry and slightly less panache. Like Emeghara, the gangly Mehmedi made his full debut against England and flashed a dangerous pot-shot across Joe Hart’s goal towards the end.

That full side England faced just weeks ago is also improving as a consequence of the largely Basel orientated talent pouring through. Two fortunate goals from set-pieces set the underdogs on their way before a late flurry spared England’s blushes and pegged the score back to 2-2. Hitzfeld’s men also thrashed a youthful yet self-destructing Welsh side 4-1 in Euro 2012 qualifying. Their progress and belief is now so crystallised that their 0-0 against Bulgaria in March was treated as a catastrophe.

The full blooded criticism back home forced Alexander Frei, scorer of a record 42 goals for the national side, to retire from the national side amidst a storm of insults. It is eye-catching that the old guard begin to make their way out just as a new breed emerges. Indeed, eight of the under-21s side that illuminated Denmark have all played for the seniors.

With inventive wizard Gokhan Inler as captain, and rough diamonds such as Xhaka, Shaqiri and Emeghara rising, will Frei’s sulk prompt the domino effect it might have done a few years ago? Regarding both personnel and decaying philosophies of how the game should be played, it seems to be out with the old, in with the new for Switzerland.

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