Being knocked out of the FIFA World Cup is always hard for a team to take, but when you did not concede a single goal in either the group stage or the Round of 16, as was the case for Switzerland, it is particularly hard to swallow.
The Swiss kept a clean sheet in all three of their first round matches and came out on top of Group G. In the last 16, Kobi Kuhn's team faced Ukraine in Cologne, and kept yet another clean sheet. The Swiss attack, however, also remained goalless, throughout the regulation 90 minutes and the half-hour of extra time. It would all come down to the lottery of penalties.
As things turned out, the Eastern Europeans held their nerve to convert three of their four spot-kicks, while Marco Streller, Tranquillo Barnetta and Ricardo Cabanas all missed for Switzerland, who saw their FIFA World Cup dream come to a bitter end. Their disappointment was clear for all to see, with the young Swiss squad leaving the pitch in floods of tears.
An unenviable record
By the following day, however, they were very much looking on the bright side, particularly about the fact that they had set a record, albeit a somewhat unenviable one, by becoming the first team to be knocked out of a FIFA World Cup without letting in a single goal.
"We've got over our disappointment," said coach Kuhn. "We're putting the penalties behind us and beginning to think back to our achievements prior to that. But even so, we were so looking forward to getting through to the quarter-finals and being in the company of four or five former World Cup winners. Now Ukraine will have that pleasure."
Kuhn's men can more than hold their heads high after their campaign, as the fans, over a thousand of them, who flocked to Zurich airport to welcome them back will testify. "It is nice to get a reception like that, but we still haven't got over the Ukraine defeat yet," said Philipp Degen, who was one of many in the Swiss squad to have come out of Germany 2006 with a great deal of credit.
Johan Djourou, Philippe Senderos, Blerim Dzemaili, Tranquillo Barnetta and Valon Behrami will all be in the running for the Gillette Best Young Player award a fact that shows that, despite their relative inexperience, they are more than capable of competing on the international stage. Goalkeeper Pascal Zuberbuhler is another who had an excellent tournament, and his four clean sheets will guarantee him a place in the top ten 2006 FIFA World Cup goalkeepers.
Switzerland's fans also proved themselves to be world-class, turning every match into a home game with their incredible support for the full 90 (or even 120) minutes. "We had some great support, we really did," commented Kuhn. "The recognition we got from our fans is the most positive aspect of the tournament for us as far as we are concerned."
With so many good points coming out of the campaign, it will be easy for Switzerland to turn the page and start looking ahead. The team has a good blend of youth and experience and can rightly feel full of confidence ahead of UEFA EURO 2008, which they will be co-hosting with Austria. "With a little more experience, this team could go even further," anticipates Kuhn. "In two years' time, we will have a more mature squad, and hopefully everyone will be fit, since we don't have the strength in depth of some of the bigger countries. Whatever happens, though, we will use these two years to bring the team on. We want to be aiming to win the whole thing in 2008."
The coach is brimming with confidence after his team's performance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, and coupled with the Swiss fans' passionate support; he has every right to be. "I am confident that we can keep on building towards 2008," he maintains. "There's no place for pessimism now."
Keeper "Zubi" is just as upbeat, and showing no signs of wanting to hang up his boots despite his 35 years of age. "I want to keep this clean sheet streak going at the EURO," he smiled.