THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

It hasn't been a great tournament for the host teams, writes Graham Dunbar

Switzerland travelled for six-and-a-half hope-filled years towards Euro 2008. Then it was gone in five days. The first country to play, the first to lose, the first to be knocked out. In a country whose real sporting passions are ice hockey, skiing and tennis, there were many face-painted converts to football left wondering if Switzerland was better off without the tournament.

The two defeats had just enough “what ifs?” to convince fans their belief that home advantage for the Nati would be spun into at least a semi-final place was not misplaced or downright foolish. What if captain Alex Frei, led off in a flood of tears, hadn’t been lost to a knee injury before half-time in the first game? Or a penalty for handball against Czech captain Tomas Ujfalusi had been given, seconds before Johan Vonlanthen’s shot hit the bar? What if Hakan Yakin had scored into a wide open goal to make it 2-0 against Turkey? Or Volkan Demirel had not made a double save to stop the Swiss going 2-1 up with ten minutes left?

Apart from a few bar owners in Geneva, who remembered the takings bonanza when England and Argentina were in town for a friendly three years ago, no one in Switzerland had seemed sorry that Croatia and Russia emerged out of Group E in qualifying. The draw sent the only security risk – Germany v Poland – to Austria and a fairly amiable bunch of match-ups to Switzerland, yet still the pre-tournament media hype was mostly about how the authorities would clamp down on fun rather than encourage it. They would borrow German and French riot police on matchdays, use drone surveillance planes, and impose strict limits on late-night drinking and music.

The team also did all they could to play down the anticipation. If that performance at Wembley – a 2-1 defeat in Fabio Capello’s first match as coach in February – seemed ordinary, well, it was as good as it got for coach Köbi Kuhn in nine months to the eve of the tournament. Apart from beating Austria, which doesn’t count.

Once training camp started, things got worse, verging on comical. One by one, players withdrew injured or sick, until even star winger Tranquillo Barnetta was crocked in a tackle by Manchester City’s Gelson ­Fernandes. Barnetta was Switzerland’s ray of hope during a gloomy winter of defeats and long-term injuries. He’d had an excellent Bundesliga season with Bayer Leverkusen and his face shone from every window of a particular burger chain. He would play, but as a lame shadow of his dashing self.

The daily Barnetta bulletin was matched by the Patrick Müller melodrama. Would Lyon release him to play in the warm-up against Slovakia instead of the French Cup final the same day? Kuhn desperately needed Müller, but insisted on seeing him in action before picking the final squad. Müller hadn’t played all season and his contract was not being renewed, but Lyon coach Alain Perrin needed an insurance policy if his first-choice centre-back, Jean-Alain Boumsong, failed a fitness test. Müller returned, Slovakia were beaten 2‑0 and a last friendly lined up Liechtenstein as a handy patsy for Frei to get the two goals he needed to set a national-team scoring record of 35. At last there was some positive momentum.

It lasted two days. On the free weekend before the big kick-off, Kuhn was at home with his wife of more than 40 years when she suffered an epileptic fit. Alice Kuhn remained in an induced coma until after her husband’s final job in football was finished. Kuhn bore it all stoically, but for a decent man it was a cruel blow.

As was the intervention by Switzerland’s master diplomat, Sepp Blatter. The FIFA president blabbed to a newspaper that he had urged the Swiss FA to ditch Kuhn after a second-round exit at the 2006 World Cup. And that the FA president replied he couldn’t because “the league runs the national team”.

Bizarrely, perhaps the Swiss Super League was the big winner in this often isolationist nation’s three-week peek at the rest of Europe. When UEFA were pressed to justify a decision, it cited the hitherto ignored Swiss League for proof. Dodgy offside goal for Holland against Italy? No, there was a case just like this at a Sion v Basel game a few weeks back. Wrong to make Germany and Portugal play a quarter-final on turf laid only two days earlier? Nonsense, Basel did it in April.

So watch the Swiss League and all will be revealed – except Swiss international players. Kuhn’s preferred team contained just one home-based player, target man Marco Streller of champions Basel, and he gets booed every time he plays. New coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has moved quickly to talk Streller out of a hastily announced international retirement, but for his main job of monitoring players’ form he would do as well to stay at home in Germany. It’s far from clear what benefits the Euro circus left behind, apart from profits on beer sales wherever the invading army of Dutch fans camped.

From WSC 258 August 2008

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