Switzerland’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ adventure finally began on Thursday, with coach Ottmar Hitzfeld and his charges arriving in Johannesburg to an enthusiastic welcome from the locals and Swiss fans.
"It was great that people in the street noticed us and were waving to us," midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta told FIFA in an exclusive interview. "The best thing is the sheer joy of the people. That could be something that really lifts us."
Former Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund supremo Hitzfeld was also buyoed by the attention the Swiss received on the way to the team's Vaal headquarters. "We received a particularly warm welcome," he said. "The people here are very friendly, as I expected from what other visitors have said. I like South Africa and this area very much indeed."
Morale in the camp has been hit, however, by the injury to captain Alex Frei, who sprained his right ankle during the final pre-flight training session. "The injury to Alex has shaken us up," admitted Barnetta. "Still, the important thing is that he’s been able to travel and that it doesn’t look quite as bad as was initially feared."
"We continued treating him during the flight, he’s made satisfactory progress and the pain has receded," said team doctor Cuno Wetzel on Thursday evening. "But just 24 hours after the injury it’s too early to say what his chances are of playing in the first game against Spain."
Frei was the only player not to take part in the first training session in Vaal on Thursday afternoon in front of some 700 fans, though West Ham United's Valon Behrami, who is carrying a thigh injury, did train separately for an hour. "It looks as though he’ll be okay," said Dr Wetzel.
As Dr Wetzel and his medical team took advantage of the ten-hour flight to treat the injured players, coach Hitzfeld will have needed the time to ponder his suddenly reduced attacking options. "Obviously there are lots of things to consider when a player is suddenly injured, especially the captain," he said. "It’s a blow to lose one of our most important players to injury just before the start of the tournament. Obviously, I have to think about his prospects and about the alternatives."
Memories are still fresh of Frei’s knee injury in the opening match of UEFA EURO 2008, when he left the field in Basle in floods of tears. "Alex feels at a low ebb right now. That’s not surprising when you’ve trained as hard as he has, then you get injured and find yourself on the sidelines again," said Hitzfeld of the FC Basel hitman. "We’re all just hoping that he’ll be ready for the first match, or at least the second."
Drawn in a tough-looking Group H alongside Spain, Chile and Honduras, Die Nati kick off their South Africa 2010 bid in Durban on 16 June against the European champions, swiftly followed by Chile on 21 June and Honduras four days later.