16 June ~ It has been said that an essential difference between the Swiss and the English is that the English see potential for humour in every situation, however unpromising – the Swiss, not necessarily so. A similar sweeping generalisation could be made about optimism in the build-up to World Cups. After a convincing end to the qualification campaign had lifted Alpine emotions to the upbeat end of modest, a series of mediocre friendly performances and injuries to important players has brought back the more customary hope without expectation.
This has reached the point where some of the media, public and, more surprisingly, the coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, are showing signs of writing off Switzerland's first game against Spain as unimportant to their chances of reaching the second round. Hitzfeld said in the final press conference before departure from Zürich: "Chile are our main opponents for qualification. The result of the match against them will be decisive for second place in the group."
This appears to be borne out by indications from the camp that neither Alex Frei nor Valon Behrami will be included against Spain. Frei, the captain, sustained an ankle injury in the last training session before boarding the plane to South Africa. Winger Behrami tweaked a hamstring in the final friendly against Italy. Both are crucial contributors towards the limited Swiss stock of attacking creativity. Frei is the link-man between midfield and attack, while Behrami's surges down the line add much needed pace and momentum.
The Swiss are not exactly gung-ho to start with and may adopt a particularly conservative approach in search of a bonus point in Durban today. Rather than directly replacing Frei with his young deputy, Eren Derdiyok, the word is that Hitzfeld will pack the midfield by including Pirmin Schwegler and leaving Blaise Nkufo as a lone battering ram up front. As Le Temps wryly noted, the Swiss decision to base themselves in an area of South Africa known for steel, brick and cement production provides a clue towards their likely tactics in their opening game. The wall-building will be accompanied with hard running to close down Spain. The Swiss have certainly prepared for this. A major talking point from the high-altitude pre-tournament training camp in the Alps was how Hitzfeld had been flogging his players in twice daily fitness sessions, in contrast to the apparent diet of head tennis and horseplay under his predecessor, Kobi Kuhn.
A marginally bolder alternative plan would be to start with the pacy Derdiyok in a more withdrawn role than usual, increasing the chances of launching counter-attacks and picking up set-piece opportunities. As Hitzfeld has acknowledged, it is questionable whether even an ultra-defensive line-up can keep Spain scoreless and the really prudent option might actually be to retain more of an attacking threat, on the assumption that the Swiss will have to score to take something from the game. But the likelihood remains that Derdiyok or the wild card in the squad, the dynamic young wideman Xherdan Shaqiri, will be introduced later in the game if the Swiss are still in touch. We may also be treated to a brief farewell outing for Hakan Yakin's 1970s playmaker routine. The pace of the performance is now rather genteel but remains unsurpassed when retaining possession or finding a killer pass is the requirement.
Overall success and failure for the Swiss, by the way, will be defined by whether they make the second round or not. Switzerland's likely second round opponents would be Brazil or Portugal, and no one here greatly fancies their chances of beating either. Bowing out with honour at that stage would allow all but the most deluded once-every-four-years Swiss supporter to settle down and watch the rest of the tournament with quiet satisfaction. Paul Knott