New horizons warm heart of a man of Stiel

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The Independent Online

The Praia D'El Rey Marriott Golf & Beach Resort, 80 kilometres north-west of Lisbon, is the kind of place where you might expect to see Henry Cooper heading for the first tee in his buggy or Jimmy Tarbuck downing a G & T in the clubhouse. Instead, the raucous laughter comes from another group of rich men marrying sport with enjoyment; younger, more athletic and footballers rather than golf bores.

The Praia D'El Rey Marriott Golf & Beach Resort, 80 kilometres north-west of Lisbon, is the kind of place where you might expect to see Henry Cooper heading for the first tee in his buggy or Jimmy Tarbuck downing a G & T in the clubhouse. Instead, the raucous laughter comes from another group of rich men marrying sport with enjoyment; younger, more athletic and footballers rather than golf bores.

"We have the sea, the beach, the training pitch and the sun as well. Wonderful." If it sounds like a postcard home, Stéphane Henchoz's assessment of Switzerland's preparations for Euro 2004 illustrates the relaxed mood. But now comes real work, in the shape of an opening Group B match against Croatia in nearby Leiria today (5pm), followed on Thursday by a meeting with England.

A poor qualification record in recent years - this is their first tournament since Euro 96 - means the Swiss were among the fourth rank of seeds and inevitably found themselves on the sharp end of the draw. The optimistic intention is to defeat Croatia, and hope to catch England in nervous mood after losing to France; then play a French team who might be resting players if they have already qualified. Well, that's the plan.

"We have everything to gain and nothing to lose," says Jorg Stiel, the lank-haired goalkeeper and captain. He is an engaging character, a late developer not capped until the age of 33, by which time he had already seen more of life than is granted to most members of his profession in a whole career.

Falling out with the Swiss club St Gallen a decade ago, he told his agent he fancied playing in South America and was eventually offered to a club called Toros Neza, from the teeming suburb often referred to as the Soweto of Mexico City. "I didn't know what Neza was like. When I went there first, I was shocked and thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' It's got about six million people - almost the population of Switzerland - and it's only part of a city.

"But it was a very interesting time, I met a lot of good people and I got a look at another side of life. For 24 years I'd seen only the nice side. It was not possible for strangers to live in Neza, because there were no drains. So I stayed in a nice apartment in the centre of Mexico City."

After the opening match of the season, at the Neza stadium where Scotland had lost to Uruguay's 10 men in the 1986 World Cup, there was an earthquake and the ground was declared unsafe, forcing the club to move to a new venue an hour out of town. Before returning to Europe, Stiel also discovered "a different mentality of soccer", especially for goalkeepers: "You go and make some dribbles there and the people like it. They like it more than if you catch the ball. It's totally different from Switzerland or Germany.

"I played against [Mexican goalkeeper] Jorge Campos and the people there are crazy about him. So I played in that style and enjoyed it. Sometimes you have to remember that it's a game. But in Switzerland they kill you for doing that. In Germany I did it once - and the coach kicked my ass. I told him, 'Hey, if I make a mistake, you can kick my ass. But otherwise, what's the problem?' "

He will be more circumspect, though, over the next month, not only because he needs, at 36, to attract a new club after leaving Borussia Mönchengladbach, but out of respect for the popular Swiss coach, Jacob "Kobi" Kuhn.

The 61 year-old former international midfielder, who won six national championships with FC Zurich, made the sort of progression that has never quite worked in England by coaching the various younger-age Swiss teams, then serving as assistant to the national team manager before succeeding him three years ago. Since then he has achieved the difficult feat of uniting the various local factions - French, German, Italian and Turkish speakers - into a committed squad, who qualified for this tournament by winning their group ahead of the Republic of Ireland (beating them in Dublin and Basle) and Russia.

Kuhn believes the Swiss generally cope well with physical British (and Irish) football, a claim backed up by 1-1 draws against England in the opening game of Euro 96 and a 1998 friendly, as well as Basle's notable Champions' League victories over Liverpool and Celtic. Hakan Yakin pulled the strings from midfield in both triumphs, and his brother Murat looks like keeping Henchoz out of the side. Johann Vogel and Stéphane Chapuisat survive from Wembley '96 but "Chapi" is long past his best, and two other strikers have withdrawn injured.

If victory today would represent a birdie, beating England or France would be closer to a hole in one.

"A tough task, but not an impossible one," Kuhn said.

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