Few players have Stephane Grichting’s single-minded determination to succeed. After eight years with Auxerre and six representing Switzerland, the 31-year-old left-back has just enjoyed the best season of his career, making a sterling contribution to his club’s third-place finish in Ligue 1, which entitles them to a place in the play-off round of next season’s UEFA Champions League.
Now preparing to serve the Nati at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the durable defender reflects on his career and Switzerland’s aims and aspirations in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
“I’m 31 now but I’ve never been in better shape. I feel great, both physically and mentally,” says Grichting, a qualified cabinet-maker who has taken a few knocks during his international career, none harder than the injury he suffered at the end of the rancorous Germany 2006 qualifying play-off match against Turkey.
The full-back needed hospital treatment after being kicked in the stomach during the chaos that followed the final whistle. When he was then relegated to the substitutes’ bench for UEFA EURO 2008, he gave serious though to retiring from international football, before deciding to carry on following Ottmar Hitzfeld’s appointment as Switzerland coach.
“Fortunately for me, Ottmar Hitzfeld places more importance on performance and merit than on your name and the club you play for,” says the Swiss survivor. “When you’re lucky enough to gain the coach’s trust, either at club level or in the national team, then that makes it easier for you to string together decent performances.”
After making only one appearance in the group phase of the Germany 2006 qualifying competition, the Auxerre man played in nine out of ten games on the road to South Africa, an indication of his renaissance under Hitzfeld.
The experienced, hard-tackling full-back is a vital component in Switzerland’s counter-attacking game and the undisputed leader of their rearguard, which conceded a miserly eight goals in qualifying from Group 2 in the European Zone. “We want to improve on what we did in 2006 and that defensive solidity, which is something the whole team works towards, not just the back-line, is what we’ll be basing our campaign on in South Africa.”
Four years ago in Germany the Swiss topped their group without conceding a single goal before playing out a 0-0 draw against Ukraine in the Round of 16 and going out on penalties. Should they achieve that defensive solidity once more, Grichting and his team-mates will have every chance of reaching their objective.
Drawn against Spain, Chile and Honduras in the first round, they will also need to show the resilience that helped them overcome a worrying start to the qualifying competition. After drawing against Israel in their opening game, the Swiss suffered a shock 2-1 home defeat to Luxembourg before managing to regroup and top the section.
“It was on the line for us and a lot of teams would have collapsed in that situation,” comments Grichting. “But we picked ourselves up straightaway and got on with the job of winning games.”
Heading for the finals
One of those games was the 2-0 defeat of Greece last September, which allowed the Swiss to take to the top of the section and put them firmly on course for the world finals. And the man who headed home the opener, just six minutes from time, was none other than Grichting.
“It was incredible,” he says of his one and only goal in over 30 internationals so far. “Going into the game we were second behind the Greeks, so we really needed a victory. It was a very tight match and things were getting extremely tense. Then we had a free-kick, and when I got my head on it and saw it go into the back of the net I was so happy.”
Grichting can be excused for savouring the moment. A highly valued member of the Auxerre side under Guy Roux, Jacques Santini and then Jean Fernandez, the Swiss defender suffered the disappointment of missing both his club’s French Cup final victories in 2003 and 2005.
Setbacks such as those help explain the full-back’s excitement at representing his country at the FIFA World Cup finals again. “I was fortunate enough to take part in the last one,” he says. “There’s a lot of excitement, pressure and expectation when you play at the World Cup. You feel like a child whose dream has come true. It’s something you have in the corner of your mind and then suddenly it becomes a reality.”
“Our goal is qualify from the group,” he concludes. “We’ve got three games to try and set up a dream match against Brazil. There’s a chance we could face them in the last 16 and for a small nation like ours, to get out of the group would be a fantastic achievement. That would do the country proud.”