When Raphael Wicky made his international debut for Switzerland two days before his 19th birthday in April 1996, the Alpine nation occupied 26th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Much has changed since then, with the side now frequently among the top ten, and Switzerland have caused a stir at several FIFA World Cups™ with spirited displays.

Wicky earned a total of 75 caps in an era which laid the foundation for the Nati’s upswing. He played for FC Sion, Werder Bremen, Atletico Madrid, Hamburg and Chivas USA before finally hanging up his boots, and still treasures the memories of participating at the 2006 World Cup, as well as at the 1996 and 2004 UEFA EUROs.

Today, Wicky is a television pundit and coach of FC Basel U-18s. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the 37-year-old about the development of the game in his homeland, who face Estonia in Lucerne on Friday in a EURO 2016 qualifying campaign that has not started as planned for the Swiss, before meeting USA in a friendly in Zurich four days later.

FIFA.com: You ended your playing career six years ago. What have you made of the development of the Swiss national team since then?
Raphael Wicky: They’ve made constant progress for the last ten years. I think that’s down to the excellent youth work that’s been done over the last ten to 12 years. The whole philosophy has changed. Even though we’re a small country we always produce good players. The Swiss league is good for young players. They can make their first 50, 70 or even 100 appearances in Switzerland and make a name for themselves before moving to one of the major European leagues. That has a positive effect on the national team. At the moment there’s a lot of potential there and the team is still very young.

What do you think are the new strengths of the national team?
They’re a bit different to the way our side was six, seven or eight years ago. We were very disciplined, like Swiss people are, but we didn’t have as much creativity. Today there lots of players with immigrant backgrounds and they’ve brought that spark of creativity and craziness. I’m thinking of the Shaqiris, Xhakas and Dzemailis, the really good attacking players. At the moment there’s a good blend of disciplined defensive players and very talented attackers in the team.

To what extent did former Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld contribute to that?
He played a big part in that because he shaped the team over the last few years. I think he also injected the side with the winning mentality we were lacking a little bit. As a German, he brought that mentality from his time with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. By doing so I think he definitely helped Switzerland a lot. 

In 2007 Switzerland sensationally won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. How important was that triumph for the current senior side?
It was very significant. News of that victory spread around the world and when a country as small as Switzerland become world champions, even if it was only at U-17 level, then it’s definitely a big success and a validation of the youth work being done there. It encourages you to keep working, to become even more meticulous, to invest even more in what you’re doing. It gives every young player an even greater incentive to play football and it shows that it really is worthwhile doing so. Now there are five or six of those players in the senior team. That’s quite a lot. Winning a World Cup with the U-17s doesn’t automatically mean that all 11 players will make the step up. There’s still a long way to go.

Many experts believe Switzerland’s best game at the 2014 World Cup was the Round of 16 match against Argentina, which they lost 1-0 after extra-time. Do you think that was as good as it will get for Switzerland, or can they achieve more in future?
The team will continue to develop because they’re still young. There are a couple of players like Philippe Senderos and Johann Djourou who have a certain amount of experience and are around the 30 mark. We don’t have any so-called ‘oldies’ in the squad, but do have a lot of very very young players with potential, some of whom have already benefitted from the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. I think they’ll have a lot more experience going into the 2016 and 2018 tournaments and that’s why the side can still get better. Nevertheless, our expectations have to be realistic. We’re a small footballing nation and if we get through the group stage at a European Championship or a World Cup then that’s a very good achievement and anything could happen after that. But it’s true that we had a great game against Argentina, our best game, which makes the fact we were eliminated that much harder to take.

Switzerland have not had the ideal start to their EURO 2016 qualifying campaign, with expected victories in San Marino and against Lithuania following defeats against England and away to Slovenia. What is that down to?
There are a number of reasons. To start with, Vladimir Petkovic didn’t have a friendly game before his first competitive one, which didn’t help. You also have to factor in that we played a top team like England in our very first game. We shouldn’t have lost that match, but there’s no shame in losing to England. That then created a certain negativity, even if the first half against Slovenia was actually very good. There haven’t been many occasions over the past few years where I’ve seen Switzerland as creative as they were, carving out so many chances. But we still lost the game. Three or four days later the team had the chance to make amends for that and did so superbly.

Petkovic has some big shoes to fill after succeeding Hitzfeld as national team coach. Can he be a success?
I believe so. The one thing he shouldn’t do is to try to copy Hitzfeld. Every coach has their own personality, their own ideas and their own footballing philosophy. He’s taken over a team that works well, that can still improve and has huge potential. The aim is to qualify for the Euros and that has to be achieved. I still believe he’ll do it.

What are the differences between Hitzfeld and Petkovic?
Hitzfeld’s teams, both in the Bundesliga and on the international stage, always played a very clear, organised and functional kind of football. Watching Switzerland play under him wasn’t a great spectacle, but the players knew what they had to do during a game. It was very geared towards getting results, and he always did so. I think that was one of his main strengths. Petkovic will need a bit of time to put his stamp on the team.

How far could Switzerland go at EURO 2016?
First of all, getting to France will be difficult enough but I’m still convinced we’ll qualify with a well-drilled team and given the potential there is. But we can’t afford any more slip-ups now. How far they can go will partly depend on the group stage draw. That said, Switzerland are always expected to get beyond the group stage nowadays, regardless of who the opponents are. And if we get to France, that should be our aim too.