Switzerland break into top 30
© AFP

Employing a successful coach like Ottmar Hitzfeld tends to pay dividends, and Switzerland are already reaping the benefits after only a few short months. The former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich supremo has already taken his new charges into the top 30 of the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, a position the Helvetians have not managed since June 2007.

After their disappointing show on home soil at the UEFA EURO 2008, where they failed to make it out of the group stages, Switzerland looked to Hitzfeld to take over from Kobi Kuhn, but the German-born coach did not meet with instant success.

Tough start
While the team got off to a flying start in Hitzfeld's first match in August with a 4-1 win over Cyprus in Geneva, the continuation of the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has certainly had its ups and downs.

At the beginning of September, the Nationalmannschaft only took a point home from Israel, conceding a heartbreaking equaliser in the 92nd minute after Hakan Yakin and Blaise N'Kufo had earlier given them a 2-0 lead. Worse was to follow however, four days later.

On 10 September, Switzerland played host to rank outsiders Luxembourg in Zurich, but contrary to the expectations of fans, pundits and indeed players, things did not go according to plan.

Jeff Strasser gave the principality the lead, but when N'Kufo equalised before half time, things seemed to be back on track. However, the minnows had one more trick up their sleeve, and Fons Leweck made it 2-1 just before full time to steal the three points. This shock result put a huge question mark over Switzerland's ability to qualify for South Africa 2010. Yet in hindsight, it also seems to have been the wake-up call that Hitzfeld and his team needed, as since then, they have gone a long way towards turning things around.

Important wins
In mid-October, Switzerland got the three points that were required of them with a workmanlike performance against Latvia at the AFG Arena in St Gallen. Alexander Frei and that man N'Kufo were once again on the score-sheet, Deniss Ivanovs having equalised for the Baltic nation.

An even more important win came four days later in Piraeus. Switzerland's match away to Greece already had the makings of a make-or-break affair, as defeat would have seen the Swiss fall eight points behind the EURO 2004 winners. Hitzfeld's men were at their battling best however, and again it was the dynamic duo of Frei and N'Kufo who secured the all-important three points. The next step on the road to South Africa comes on 28 March 2009, when Switzerland will travel to Moldova, who are currently bottom of Group 2.

"We reacted in exactly the right way to the 2-1 defeat to Luxembourg a while back," explained N'Kufo. "Those six points were the main thing for us in recent weeks. What was important was getting a win against Latvia and then taking any chances that came our way against a good Greek side," said the Twente Enschede striker, whose goal against Greece meant that he had scored in four qualifying matches in a row.

N'Kufo and his team-mates managed a haul of 158 points last month which saw them leap up 18 places in the table from 45th in October to 27th in November, overtaking such strong footballing nations as Côte d'Ivoire, Sweden, Serbia and Asian champions Iraq.

And anyone who knows Ottmar Hitzfeld will know that 27th spot is by no means the peak of his team's potential. The coach doubtless has loftier goals, and his squad are currently proving that they have the quality to match his ambitions. Now it is up to Hitzfeld to bring some consistency to the team to prove that they belong among the world's elite.