Hitzfeld: We have our backs to the wall
Ottmar Hitzfeld has been in charge of the Swiss national team for nigh on two years now. The former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich coach guided Die Nati to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, only to exit the tournament at the group stage after a win over subsequent winners Spain, a defeat at the hands of Chile and a draw against Honduras.
Despite the disappointment of falling short in South Africa, Hitzfeld continues to enjoy the full trust of the Swiss Football Association and is now targeting UEFA EURO 2012 qualification with the Helvetians. In their opening European Championship qualifier, however, Hitzfeld's side slipped to a 3-1 home defeat against England. Now the Swiss are looking to register their first points on the way to Poland/Ukraine when they take on Montenegro and then Wales in early October.
Ahead of these crunch qualifiers, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the man himself about the disappointment of South Africa 2010, the road to EURO 2012 and up-and-coming Swiss youngsters.
FIFA.com: Two months have passed since the World Cup. Having had a chance to reflect, what is your assessment of South Africa 2010?
Ottmar Hitzfeld: My assessment is the same as it was straight after the tournament. We failed to reach the Round of 16. That was our prime objective, so I'm disappointed with the way we performed. The victory over eventual winners Spain was historic, one that will never be forgotten, but it was still only worth three points. And if you only win one group game, you can't expect to progress any further.
How painful was it to go out at the group stage?
We didn't perform as badly as was made out in some quarters after the 0-0 draw with Honduras. We had about 20 opportunities in that match but failed to create chances. All in all we lacked punch in attack. Even in qualifying the majority of our goals came from [Alexsander] Frei and [Blaise] Nkufo. But I don't accept that Switzerland should have beaten Honduras 2-0 with ease. Spain won 2-0, even though they had to do something for their goal difference after the defeat against us. And Chile, who were among the highest scorers in qualifying despite facing teams such as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, had to settle for a 1-0 victory.
You quickly switched the focus to UEFA EURO 2012. How easy has it been for you and the players to put the World Cup behind you?
I placed the World Cup on the agenda for our first meeting ahead of the international in Austria and discussed it with all the relevant parties. Afterwards the task was to look forward as quickly as possible and turn the focus to the matches to come. We also had to cope with the retirements of [Benjamin] Huggel, [Ludovic] Magnin, Nkufo and [Christoph] Spycher, all experienced players who need to be replaced. In a relatively small football nation like Switzerland that's quite a major task. We don't have the large supply of players that Germany or England have.
You started the European Championship qualifying campaign with a home defeat against England. What's your take on that game looking back?
We had no answer to the way England played. In attack they were as strong and dangerous as ever; in midfield they played an aggressive pressing game and in defence they operated with Italian discipline.
In early October you meet Montenegro, who with two wins have made a surprisingly good start to the qualifying campaign. How good are they?
Yes, we have our backs to the wall and it's only the second game. Montenegro have an opportunity to put nine points between them and us with a win. An entire country is in a state of euphoria, the team are on a run and certainly haven't stolen the points. The players are technically gifted, tactically astute and dangerous going forward. It's going to be really difficult for us.
Another make-or-break fixture is the one against Wales, who are known for their battling qualities. What are your expectations going into the game?
For the moment we're concentrating solely on Montenegro. I've seen Wales's last few matches on DVD, but they have a new coach now and things may have changed a lot. We'll have Wales watched while we're playing in Montenegro.
Also in your group are Bulgaria, who have started with two defeats. What are Lothar Matthaus's side capable of in the rest of the qualifying campaign?
I don't want to talk too much about Bulgaria now. They're in a similar situation to Wales. Having lost 4-0 in England and 1-0 at home to Montenegro and then brought in a new coach, they haven't made the start they would have wanted, but what becomes of Bulgaria will only be of interest to me when we come up against them in the new year.
Finally, a number of long-serving Swiss players have announced their retirement from international football. Which young players are ready to fill the void they have left behind?
We've already eased some very promising players into the team. [Valentin] Stocker of FC Basel or [Francois] Affolter and [Moreno] Costanzo from Young Boys. Ben Khalifa, a member of our U-17 World Cup winning team, has also been involved, though obviously it's very difficult for him if he doesn't get any playing time in Wolfsburg.