World Cup 2014: Young and gifted Swiss provide an example and test for England
'Ottmar Hitzfeld took a young team and we have progressed so much’ praised Johan Djourou on the recently retired coach’s impact
The obstacles are not about to get any easier for England, as they seek to put the events of this summer away and start all over again.
An opening European Championship qualifier in Switzerland, two months from now, pits them against a nation who accomplished things in Brazil that they could only dream about here: qualification from the group stage before a last-16 tie which saw them take Argentina to the brink of penalties.
The message from the Swiss players who were so devastated to have fallen short on Tuesday was that this is a burgeoning nation, with its best talents still fully to mature. The squad is about more than the glittering Xherdan Shaqiri. England will have their work cut out.
“We are not a small team any more,” said the midfielder Gelson Fernandes, formerly at Manchester City and now at the German club Freiburg. “We have players who play their football abroad. Shaqiri is superb. He is a great player and talent. He is only 22. But we have [Josip] Drmic, [Ricardo] Rodriguez and [Haris] Seferovic. They are all under 22. Congratulations to them, they need to come back strong for the European Championships.”
The explanation of Switzerland’s consistency – which puts a nation of eight million people four places above 10th-placed England in the world rankings – is far more sophisticated than having players working abroad. The Swiss travelled to Brazil with talents who won the under-17 World Cup in 2009 and reached the 2011 European under-21 Championship final.
The national football federation has a strong youth development programme, which has ensured that the immigrant population has been as integral for Ottmar Hitzfeld as it has been for France and Germany. Drmic, Rodriguez and Seferovic are all of immigrant parentage and there are a number of Muslim players in the squad: Napoli’s Valon Behrami and Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Granit Xhaka as well as Seferovic and Admir Mehmedi, the Macedonian-born striker who is at Freiburg with Fernandes. All football heroes in a country which recently voted for a ban on minarets and strict new quotas on immigration, in February.
The politics of immigration will continue to be subsidiary to the development of a national side whose composition has been shaped by the civil war in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Swiss possessed a serious counterattacking threat against Argentina and defended resolutely. The FA’s new opposition scouting team will have taken greatest encouragement from the lack of conviction the Swiss showed in front of goal when opportunities presented themselves against the South Americans. Drmic spurned a golden first half chance.
England might also fancy the Swiss defence which was eviscerated in the 5-2 group stage hammering by France. But Johan Djourou was also integral to the rearguard that was superb in keeping Argentina out for 117 minutes, before Angel di Maria struck gold. There is an unmistakeable sense that Djourou, who was born in the Ivory Coast, wants to prove something to England in the fixture on Monday September 8. He left Arsenal permanently this month to extend a loan period at Hamburg into a three-year contract. “The goal [for our country] is to progress,” he said. “I showed I have the quality. When you are not injured and healthy, everything goes your way. It was tough with Hamburg last season. When you fight relegation and when you avoid it, it gives you a big life. This competition was the perfect kick. We did great. I did great.”
The Swiss will also be turning a new page when they face England at St Jakob Park in Basle. Hitzfeld has retired after six years at the helm, to be replaced by Vladimir Petkovic, previously at Lazio. “We can only be proud of what he has done with us,” Djorou said of Hitzfeld. “He took a young team and we have progressed so much. He doesn’t talk much but knows the game so well. He is the type you give everything for. We did that.” Such is the task that lies up ahead. There is not time for England to pause and recharge.
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