Surely a team that only conceded one goal at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and none at all in Germany four years earlier must be capable of going a long way? Not Switzerland. In 2006, their progress ground to a halt in the Round of 16 and this time they did not even get beyond the group stage, despite setting a new record for playing time at FIFA World Cups without conceding a goal.
In Germany, the 'Swiss wall' proved impenetrable, and they negotiated the first round without conceding a goal. In fact the Nati emerged as top of their group after 2-0 victories over Togo and Korea Republic and a goalless draw with France. However, the inability to score goals that would eventually prove the downfall of Ottmar Hitzfeld's team in South Africa was fatal to the Swiss in their Round of 16 tie with Ukraine. After 120 goalless minutes in Cologne, they succumbed in the shoot-out by missing their first three penalties.
Four years later in South Africa the outlook seemed brighter, especially after the Nati began the tournament with a sensational 1-0 victory over a hitherto almost invincible Spain. The ingredients for that upset were the resistance of a compact defence coupled with occasional attacks on the break. But Switzerland's second match against Chile was another story altogether. After Valon Behrami was sent off just after the half-hour, the 10 men of Switzerland spent the rest of the match pinned down in defence. Despite setting a new record of 558 minutes of FIFA World Cup football without conceding, Hitzfeld's team eventually let in a late goal and were unable to respond. "The match against Chile was a setback from which we never recovered," the coach acknowledged after his team's elimination.
Going into their final match with Honduras the Swiss had their destiny in their own hands, needing to win by a two-goal margin to be certain of qualifying for the knock-out stages. But that proved beyond them, and indeed only the heroics of goalkeeper Diego Benaglio prevented the Central Americans snatching victory with their swift counter-attacks. "In the first period of the game we committed too many errors," said defender Stephane Grichting. "Our target was to reach the Round of 16 and not to have made it is disappointing. It shouldn't have happened that we beat Spain and yet failed to go through."
It is not hard to identify the weaknesses behind the failure of a team that let in a single goal but could only find the net once themselves. There is a broad consensus among the players and throughout the country that the attacking performance of the Nati was inadequate. "The final ball often went astray and we created too few clear chances," said midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta. Full-back Stephan Lichtsteiner added: "We never stopped running, but it didn't produce anything. You can't expect to go any further if you only score once in three games." Nor did plan B work out any better, according to Lichtsteiner. "We produced a lot of crosses and tried a few set plays. Usually we score regularly from corners and free-kicks."
Statistics that tell a story
The statistics simply underline Switzerland's difficulties in finding the goal. They produced just nine shots in 270 minutes of football; only four other finalists managed fewer. The impotence of the Swiss attack left Hitzfeld to rue the absence through injury of Marco Streller after a season in which he scored 21 goals in 29 leagues games for Basel. "Marco was in the form of his life when he was forced to drop out," lamented the coach.
Switzerland's inadequacies did not end there. Their build-up play was also significantly below-par. At 68 per cent, their proportion of passes completed was in the bottom-third of participating teams – by contrast, Brazil completed 84 per cent, Spain 80 per cent, and Argentina and Germany 78 per cent each. The players are well aware of the problem. "If we don't pass more accurately we'll never win games like these," said Barnetta. "Playing like that, we didn't deserve to go any further."
Still, there is optimism that brighter days may lie ahead for Swiss football after their youngsters triumphed last November at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The country's hopes are now pinned on budding stars such as Benjamin Siegrist, Haris Seferovic, Nassim Ben Khalifa and Oliver Buff, and Hitzfeld too is looking resolutely to the future. "We should return home with our heads up even if we didn't make it to the Round of 16," he said. "We have to start over again – in September we open our European Championship qualifying campaign against England."