The calm and composure of Swiss coach Pierre-André Schürmann at the post-match press conference as he discussed his team's 3-0 defeat to Nigeria was quite remarkable. The result meant an early exit from the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 for a team regarded as possible champions, but hardly a trace of disappointment was visible on the face of the 44-year-old.
The Swiss had performed admirably in their first two outings, a 2-1 defeat of Asian champions South Korea, followed by a narrow 1-0 defeat by holders Brazil. Those displays had lent weight to the argument that the Red and Whites were serious contenders for the ultimate prize.
So what went wrong during the final group match that saw the Swiss slip out of the tournament practically without a fight? "Nigeria were simply better than we were," argued Schürmann, adding that the technical ability, athleticism and speed of the African champions had not given his team the slightest chance. His charges had given their opponents too much room, Schürmann reasoned, but nevertheless defended them to the hilt. "I take my hat off to the players," he said of the young men who had taken Switzerland to a first-ever appearance in a FIFA World Youth Championship.
There are undoubtedly other explanations for the loss to Nigeria. Three games in seven days at world championship level, plus the high temperatures for the final round of matches, left the young players struggling with the unusually high physical strain. Key players such as Philippe Senderos from Arsenal, Johan Vonlanthen, loaned by PSV Eindhoven to Brescia, and Reto Ziegler from Tottenham Hotspur seem finally to have succumbed to the demands of a long, exhausting season.
In his summing-up, Schürmann said: "It's a blow that the tournament is over for us, but taking part was an important experience for the players. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, both in terms of technical skill and physical fitness." The coach did not want the lessons learned over the past few days to be overlooked: "It was important for us to play against the best teams at this level. We already knew after the draw that we would have to take on tough opponents. And it was good to assess the ability of the other sides."
As long ago as mid-April, following a 2-2 draw in Germany, Schürmann had publicly expressed his concerns about the short time he would be given to prepare his side. He only had a week to bring his squad together at a training camp in Ovronnaz, while a number of key players including Senderos, Vonlanthen, Ziegler and Tranquillo Barnetta were only able to join the group at the last minute due to commitments with the senior side in a FIFA World Cup qualifier against the Faroe Islands.
Schürmann also pointed out that because of Switzerland's small size - only Panama and Honduras among the championship participants have smaller populations - the country's pool of talent is not limitless. Still, the Swiss have often made a virtue out of necessity - the Under-20 squad comprises in large part the team that became Europe's Under-17 champions in 2002.
An upward path since the mid-1990s
The successful development of young Swiss football talent started to take off in 1995 with the arrival at the Swiss Football Federation (SFV) of Hansruedi Hasler. As the SFV's technical director, the former Swiss league player and educational science graduate improved co-operation between the federation and the clubs. With financial assistance from sponsors, the technical staff was expanded with the hiring of coaches such as Schürmann and Köbi Kuhn, who is currently in charge of Switzerland's senior side.
Previously a single professional coach had to take charge of five youth international teams, but today the development work is handled by a staff of 10 full-time coaches. In addition, the SFV has established training bases and development centres where international players come together for regular sessions. This exemplary effort is now paying off, with a European title for the Under-17s, a European championship semi-final appearance for both the Under-19s and Under-21s, and the country's first qualification for the FIFA World Youth Championship.
However, the Swiss have also had to make the painful realisation that all their excellent and universally-praised youth development work is in itself no guarantee of success on the field. A few weeks ago the Under-17s were eliminated in the first round of the European Championship in Italy, while the Under-19s have failed even to qualify for the next European tournament at their level.
Hasler warned recently in an interview: "I get worried when an Under-17 international is offered a three-year contract worth two million francs [€1.3 million]. We have to ask ourselves whether we are making the youngsters psychologically strong enough to deal with temptations in a level-headed way."
But the list of talented young Swiss players is long and notably includes Johan Djourou, Guilherme Afonso and Pirmin Schwegler. When the team leaves Amsterdam's Schiphol airport at 7.25 p.m. on Sunday evening for the journey home, the Swiss should certainly not be apprehensive about the future. And perhaps only during the rest of the tournament in the Netherlands will we appreciate the true strength of the teams that have left them by the wayside.