Haas claims underdog tag will aid Swiss

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The Independent Online

When the British think of Switzerland, they picture cuckoo clocks, cheese with holes and scenic mountains rather than international-class footballers. So says Bernt Haas, West Bromwich Albion's representative at Euro 2004, who will be striving to challenge the stereotype as the Swiss compete in England's group at the finals.

When the British think of Switzerland, they picture cuckoo clocks, cheese with holes and scenic mountains rather than international-class footballers. So says Bernt Haas, West Bromwich Albion's representative at Euro 2004, who will be striving to challenge the stereotype as the Swiss compete in England's group at the finals.

Haas, first-choice right-back in Kobi Kuhn's squad, is not the type to wear a chip on the shoulder, and not simply because he once worked as a model for Armani. But his experience in England, where he helped Albion return to the Premiership in May and also played in the top flight for Sunderland, has left him feeling Switzerland do not receive the respect that the achievements of a small nation deserve.

"People in England seem to assume they will beat us," Haas said, looking forward to the Group B confrontation between the countries in Coimbra a week today. "The belief there is that we've come out here for a bit of a holiday, playing three games and then going home."

Being written off is a traditional role for the Swiss, who are contesting their first major finals since Euro 96, when they drew with England at Wembley. Yet it is a status, according to Haas, which suits their psyche. "We have come to Portugal as underdogs. That's good because we'll play without the pressure of expectations."

Haas, 26, would love England, France and Croatia, Switzerland's opening opponents at Leiria on Sunday, to allow lazy perceptions to induce complacency. The exploits he then proceeds to detail suggest it is as unlikely as it would be foolish.

"We're a good team. We won a qualifying group that included the Republic of Ireland and Russia, so we're here on merit. We grew up as a team during the qualifying group and stuck together as a group.

"It's true we got the Irish at the right time, just after the World Cup, when they were having problems with their manager [Mick McCarthy]. But we defeated them away and again at home to finish off the group. Those results will give us confidence that we can not only match up to Premiership players, but also beat them.

"That will be important when we play England, and don't forget the French have nine players based in the Premiership as well. In club football, too, we've shown there is nothing to fear. In between Sunderland and Albion I spent a year on loan with Basle and we got through the first phase of the Champions' League after knocking out Liverpool. Later, we also drew at Manchester United.

"In our country we don't have a big league. Clubs play each other four times. So to play against United, Liverpool and Ireland - against players we see on television every week - is an extra motivating factor for us, especially for the guys still based in Switzerland."

Haas was born in the Austrian capital, Vienna, but was raised in Switzerland and qualifies to play for them through his stepfather. He was something of a teenaged prodigy, being 17 when he made his Champions' League debut for Grasshopper Zurich against Ajax and winning his first cap the following year in Finland.

"My career started very quickly and then settled down. I had seven years with Grasshopper before moving to Sunderland because I needed the change. It was a great opportunity to play in the Premiership."

That experience reacquainted him with Thierry Henry, an adversary from youth and Under-21 football, against whom he will again be pitted in Portugal. "Sometimes you see only the number on his back," Haas reflects with a smile. "But if you have a good game..."

Although his sojourn on Wearside ended unsatisfactorily, with Haas finding out from a radio station that he had been transfer-listed, it provided an insight into some of the players he may find running at him down the England left. "They have lots of options there: Cole, Bridge, Heskey, Lampard, Dyer. But judging by the English press, if it's not their weakest position then it's one they're unsure about. I'm just happy that Ryan Giggs won't be playing for them!"

His second stab at English football, after a £500,000 move to West Bromwich, began brightly. Haas scored Albion's goal of the season with an extraordinary scissors-kick against Manchester United in the Carling Cup and helped them into the automatic promotion places. However, he lost his form and his place in the spring.

Was he worried about going into Euro 2004 with his competitive edge blunted? "Being out of the side was a chance to have a rest at the right time. In Switzerland we have a month-long midwinter break. In England they play right through, and because of my transfer I didn't have a proper break last summer.

"Then I played more than 40 matches in a row - Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday - which is a lot of football. But it was a great season for me: my ambitions were to qualify for these finals and to gain promotion. I achieved them both."

Haas' aim now is to help Switzerland reach the second phase of a tournament for the first time. He maintains they have players who can live with the best, citing the playmaking of Hakan Yakin; the finishing of Alex Frei; the defensive composure of Liverpool's Stéphane Henchoz; and the attacking wiles of Stéphane Chapuisat, one of his boyhood heroes, who will retire from international football after the finals.

Whether the veteran bows out after the first stage remains to be seen, but Haas takes heart from the spate of successes by underdogs in the Champions' League ("They proved that everything is possible") and from a draw which puts Croatia first on Switzerland's agenda.

"Without taking anything for granted, they're the ones we can definitely beat if we play 100 per cent. If we win this one, then get something from England, maybe France will have six points and be qualified by the time we play them. But at this level, they're all good teams."

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