A fresh gust of wind blew through Swiss football on 15 December 2009 as the country’s brightest young prospects triumphed at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Abuja, Nigeria. That conquest, claimed to huge general surprise, suggested a bright future on the horizon for Switzerland’s senior team, with supporters now patiently waiting for the new generation to come of age.
“You have to let time take its course,” commented Basel striker Alexander Frei, a stalwart in Ottmar Hitzfeld’s current Nati side. “That goes for the development of a young player too. We all needed plenty of matches and lots of practice to carve out a place for ourselves in the professional game. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
For now, Frei’s generation form the backbone of the team, with the accent placed more on experience than the vibrancy of youth as the bid for a place at UEFA EURO 2012 resumes this weekend. At 31, Frei leads the way in the Swiss Super League scoring charts with 16 strikes this term, and he will again spearhead the national side’s efforts along with Marco Streller, 29, and Hakan Yakin, 34. FIFA.com met up with the veteran trio ahead of their trip to Bulgaria on Saturday.
"Experience is definitely one of the keys to success, but not the only one,” said Streller. “I’ve seen carefree young players have just as much impact on a team. I think you need a mix of both.” Frei feels convinced that his years in the game have helped him hone his craft, meanwhile. “Experience is a crucial factor for a striker, for a goalscorer’s instincts,” he explained.
Even if you haven’t seen him for 90 minutes, he’s capable of popping up in the 91st minute to make the difference. That’s the mark of a world-class player.
The pair certainly know what it takes to put the ball in the net, having shared almost half of Basel’s league efforts this season between themselves. The championship frontrunners boast the division’s most prolific attack, and were victorious again at the weekend in a 2-1 win away to Grasshoppers. True to type, both Streller and Frei got their names on the score-sheet in Zurich, with the latter securing a vital three points in the title race by burying a superb free-kick from 30 metres as time ticked down.
For Yakin, the Basel duo have not just their finishing abilities to thank for their hauls but also gifted colleagues. “One way or another, their excellent team-mates play a major role,” said the Lucerne forward, a close friend of Frei and his competitor in the Swiss Super League scoring stakes, even if they prefer to play down their rivalry. “The mutual respect and friendship that exists between Hakan and me means we don’t feel like rivals on the pitch, although rivalry can be healthy,” said Frei.
The experienced marksmen have never shared the same dressing room in the club game, but that has not stopped them forging a fine understanding with the Nati, hitting a combined 62 goals in their 170 appearances. “I’ve played something like 50 or 60 times with Yakin in my 83 international games, so it’s not hard to team back up with him,” added the younger of the two, fresh from scoring twice in a 2-2 friendly draw with Ukraine last November – his first match following his announcement that he will retire from the international arena in June.
"I have immense respect for Alex, both as a man and as a team-mate, and for everything he’s done for the different clubs he’s played with as well as the national team,” said Yakin. Streller added: “He’s a really great player. Even if you haven’t seen him for 90 minutes, he’s capable of popping up in the 91st minute to make the difference. That’s the mark of a world-class player. He’s deadly in front of goal and knows how to sniff out a chance, plus he’s comfortable with both feet and he’s always in the right place at the right time.”
The country’s all-time leading scorer with 42 goals, Frei will be a key figure again as Switzerland attempt to advance their EURO 2012 claims in Sofia this weekend. Hitzfeld’s charges lie third in qualifying Group G, seven points behind leaders Montenegro with a game in hand, and they are still desperately pursuing the consistency that eluded them at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, when they defeated eventual winners Spain 1-0 only to exit at the group stage. Indeed, since posting a creditable 4-1 win over Wales in their last encounter on the road to Poland and Ukraine, the Swiss have been held to a pair of friendly draws, following up the promising stalemate against Ukraine with a more troubling goalless affair against Malta in February.
“Bulgaria have the advantage of playing at home,” said Hitzfeld, who has recently signed a contract extension keeping him on board until Brazil 2014. “They’re a team who play at pace on the break. We’ll need to stay compact and play well in the transitions between defence and attack.
"For me, a draw is no good. We’re targeting all three points. Obviously our goal remains to qualify for EURO 2012. The team and coaching staff will do everything we can to achieve that aim. We’ll be playing a final.”
Switzerland’s last experience of a final proved memorable in Abuja, of course, but can Hitzfeld’s more seasoned performers whip up a similar whirlwind in Sofia?