Switzerland hit the big time
© AFP

Little country – big progress. In footballing terms, this is a fair reflection of what Switzerland managed to achieve in 2009. Their various national teams have obtained some excellent results over the past 12 months, confirming many years of hard work and perhaps even ushering in a new golden era for the Central Europeans.

Qualification for the sport's greatest tournament, a youth team crowned as world champions and appearance in a beach soccer final – what a year Switzerland has had. It is difficult to rank these achievements in terms of importance since all of them were well received by their fans back home, but booking their ticket for their ninth FIFA World Cup™ and their third in a row was positive proof that Swiss football is a force to be reckoned with.

A poor showing for Switzerland in their home tournament – the UEFA EURO 2008 – marked the end of Kobi Kuhn's tenure as coach, but rather than let the team slide into decline, the powers-that-be at the national association took a bold step in handing over the reins to one of the most respected coaches in Europe, Germany's Ottmar Hitzfeld. "The General" proceeded to get off to a catastrophic start, losing to minnows Luxemburg in a South Africa 2010™ qualifier, but the former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich coach soon righted the ship and steered his troops to the top of Group 2 in the European zone, taking the direct route to the forthcoming FIFA World Cup.

Qualification constitutes a real exploit every time, considering the limited resources which the country has at its disposal. "You shouldn't forget that Switzerland has ten times fewer inhabitants than a country like Germany so the pool of talent is a lot smaller," said Hitzfeld to FIFA.com shortly before the team managed to book their ticket. "For the past few years, Swiss football has been punching way above its weight. The national association has done some excellent work particularly in terms of youth development. When clubs buy a Swiss youngster, they know that they are getting a player who has acquired excellent technical and tactical awareness."

Training pays off
Hitzfeld, who has two UEFA Champions League successes on his coaching resume, could not have been expecting his encouraging words to be backed up so soon when a few weeks later, the future of Swiss football were in action at their first ever FIFA U-17 World Cup. Merely qualifying for a tournament like this was already a real achievement, with Switzerland finishing ahead of such established names as France, Spain and Italy. It turned out to be tip of the iceberg however, and a real shock was in store…

It looked as if Switzerland would be making a whistle-stop tour of Nigeria when they drew Brazil, Mexico and Japan in the first round, but it was the South Americans and the Asians who would end up packing their bags earlier than expected. The Swiss meanwhile secured three victories in as many matches, setting themselves up nicely for the Round of 16. Germany and Italy then fell to the Swiss in hard-fought cross-border derbies, as did the surprising Colombians, and then Dany Ryser's youngsters put the icing on the cake by defeating the hosts, holders and three-time champion Nigerians in the final.

The national association has done some excellent work particularly in terms of youth development.
Otmmar Hitzfeld, Switzerland coach.

Quite an achievement for Switzerland's first ever appearance at this age group. "I am pleased to see that my ideas and philosophy have been borne out by the results and that I have been able to help the boys achieve this goal," said coach Dany Ryser, deflecting any praise he received onto his players. "It also shows that Swiss football is on the right track."

That last sentence showed that Ryser, like Hitzfeld, seems to be adept at predicting the future. His youngsters had barely returned home to a triumphant welcome before they were knocked off the front page of the newspapers by their beach soccer colleagues. Again Switzerland were at their first ever FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, on the sands of Dubai, and again a surprise was in store. The Swiss sand specialists could not quite emulate the U-17 team, losing to Brazil in the Final – a team which has been invincible for over four years now – but the fact that they made it that far in their first ever tournament was incredible.

Perfect integration
This historic year is the result of a great deal of concerted effort in terms of training combined with the experience that Hitzfeld and players plying their trade in the best leagues and training centres in Europe have brought. There is also a sociological factor behind the success. The integration of immigrants has been a boon for Swiss football: the top scorer and best player at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup was Dejan Stankovic, who is of Serbian origin, while the Swiss team which qualified so handsomely for South Africa 2010 has Johan Djourou (whose family is from Cote d'Ivoire) in defence and then Blaise N'Kufo (Congo) and Hakan Yakın (Turkey) pulling the strings up front.

The U-17 world champions were even more multi-cultural: adidas Silver Ball winner Nassim Ben Khalifa's family are from Tunisia, joint best player of the tournament Hasan Seferovic has Bosnian roots while defensive midfielder Pajtim Kasami was born in Macedonia. These are the heroes who used their talent and often a different footballing culture to enable Swiss football to take a step up the ladder and start holding their own on the world stage.

"This title is wonderful but they need to keep their feet on the ground. If they think they're already at the top, they won't win another match all year in 2010," summarised Ryser, whose job it is to keep expectations in check among the young generation. "Swiss football is currently enjoying a real boom period. We'll be taking a good team down to South Africa and I hope that some of my players will be ready for Brazil 2014. Maybe they'll enjoy similar success down there…"