Switzerland vs England: Faith, hope and charity prepare Vladimir Petkovic for his Switzerland debut

New head coach will take charge of his first game against England

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The Independent Football

There is more to life than football, and more to football than winning trophies, as new Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic can testify.

But then the 51-year-old naturalised Swiss, originally from Bosnia, has followed an unlikely career path – never more so than during the five years from 2003-08 when he worked for a homeless charity called Caritas in Locarno.

He spent his days working with unemployed young men and helping out in a charity shop, and did his management in the Swiss lower leagues in the evenings instead.

Now he begins the daunting task of following Ottmar Hitzfeld on Monday night. Hitzfeld retired after the World Cup, in which he took Switzerland to within minutes of a penalty shootout for a place in the quarter-finals.

Before getting the job in 2008, though, Hitzfeld had won seven Bundesliga titles, two Swiss titles, 10 cups and, of course, the European Cup with first Borussia Dortmund (in 1997) and then Bayern Munich (2001).

Petkovic comes into the role with last year’s Coppa Italia to his name – a fine achievement in itself with Lazio, but there’s not much more that he can put on the mantelpiece. It is his other traits that stand out, the characteristics, in fact, that won him the Lazio job in 2012.

It was certainly a surprise when Lazio’s owner Claudio Lotito appointed Petkovic two summers ago. The job that had, within recent memory, been held by Dino Zoff, Sven Goran Eriksson and Roberto Mancini went to an itinerant manager most of whose jobs had ended in failure – he was sacked by Young Boys of Berne and then Samsunspor in Turkey. Yet he was the man tasked with reviving one of Rome’s big teams, and Lotito had realised that here was a coach out of the ordinary.

“We chose Petkovic because of other qualities,” Lotito explained at the time, talking up the “morality, character and determination” of the man he selected to replace the popular and successful Edy Reja. “I believe footballers should be judged not only as footballers but also as people who need to be nourished spiritually. I chose Petkovic for this reason. I think it would be ungenerous to only judge a manager on results, which don’t only depend on him but a long list of other things.”

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Experienced coach Ottmar Hitzfeld performed very well as Switzerland head coach

It was an unusually far-sighted and thoughtful assessment from a football chairman, built on Petkovic’s charity work and linguistic skills – he speaks Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Italian, French and German. In the Swiss lower leagues, with Lugano and Bellinzona, Petkovic improved his teams with his own mix of motivational skills and tactical ambition – he models his management on Arsène Wenger and Fabio Capello. He nearly took Bellinzona into the Swiss Super League in 2007 but lost a play-off, before finally getting them up the following season, as well as losing the Swiss Cup final 4-1 to Basel.

It was still impressive enough work to earn Petkovic the managerial job at Young Boys of Berne, where he nearly won the 2010 Swiss Super League, only for them to be beaten to it by Basel by three points. That finish earned Young Boys a place in the Champions League play-off round, where they famously raced into a  3-0 lead over Tottenham in the first leg, their imaginative  3-4-3 system causing Harry Redknapp’s side problems, before they went out 6-3 on aggregate.

Petkovic did not last much longer at Berne, though, and was tempted across to Turkey in 2011 to manage Samsunspor, a small Anatolian team who had just been promoted into the top flight. It was a difficult year and with the team almost permanently in the relegation zone he was dismissed in January 2012 after just 21 league games.

A brief interim spell at Sion followed but this was the underwhelming background which led to his surprise appointment by Lazio that summer. Lotito’s hunch, though, was vindicated. Lazio started the 2012-13 season brilliantly, building around Hernanes in midfield and Miroslav Klose up front.

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Petkovic did well at Lazio but was sacked at Christmas after discussing becoming Switzerland manager

They stayed in the Champions League positions for the first half of the season, and while they eventually fell away he recorded one of the great triumphs in Lazio’s recent history, beating city rivals Roma in the Coppa Italia final at the two clubs’ mutual home, Stadio Olimpico.

Petkovic was a hero at Lazio but that dissipated the next season when he talked to the Swiss football federation about replacing Hitzfeld after the 2014 World Cup. Once their deal went public last Christmas, Lotito dismissed him and brought back his predecessor Reja. Petkovic had done little wrong – especially after delivering an unlikely trophy – but in football good faith does not last forever.

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