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May 30, 2006

International bright young things

History

Switzerland return to the World Cup finals after a 12-year hiatus with much to look forward to.

With a fresh and vibrant team and a coach who the players believe in there is every chance that they could have an impressive tournament before bowing out of competitive action until they co-host the European Championships with Austria in 2008.

Although Switzerland had a rich tradition in the early tournaments - they feature in six of the first eight finals - they struggled to make any kind of impact after bowing out in the first round of the 1966 competition.

Three times they reached the quarter-finals, most notably in 1954 when they led neighbours Austria 3-0 only to go down 7-5 in an amazing tie. But since 1966, Switzerland have qualified just once - for the tournament in the United States in 1994.

After being in the European Championships two years ago, Switzerland have shown clear progress by qualifying for consecutive tournaments. After enjoying great success at youth level in recent times they are now beginning to see the young stars progress into the full side. Among the Swiss' success was the European Under-17 Championship in 2002.

While for some being drawn with France may be a little daunting, the Swiss team can point to being unbeaten against the former champions in qualifying. With South Korea and debutants Togo their other first round opponents, there is a real belief that this side should be reaching the knockout stages.

The gaffer

The architect of the Swiss rival is Kobi Kuhn, a coach whose elevation to the top job was not met with universal approval. Kuhn had never managed at club level prior to landing the job in June 2001, save for two brief stints as caretaker boss of FC Zurich while the club searched for a new permanent manager.

Kuhn spent virtually his whole career with FC Zurich, joining the club as a player in 1960 and going on to lift the Swiss title six times in addition to five FA Cups. FC Zurich also twice reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1964 and 1977. The creative midfielder spent 17 years as a player and following a brief stint with Zurich rivals Grasshoppers he returned to the club's coaching staff.

He won 64 international caps for Switzerland, being named in the squad for the 1966 finals in England, but was sent home in disgrace after he and a team-mate failed to return to the team hotel before a curfew came into force. Kuhn was eventually banned from representing his country for 12 months.

Kuhn, who had been in charge of Zurich's youth affairs from 1979 until leaving the role in 1995, made his mark with the Football Association after being put in charge of player development in 1996. He sewed the seeds for the later success at youth level, first leading the Under-18 side to an impressive showing at the 1997 European Championships.

He then took charge of the Under-21 side before stepping up to the full national side midway through qualifying for the 2002 European Under-21 Championships - which they eventually reached for the first ever time.

Though Switzerland failed to make it to the 2002 World Cup finals, the plan for Kuhn was long-term. They failed to get through the group stage - again they came up against France - but there was plenty of promise. Among others, Johan Vonlanthen made headlines by breaking Wayne Rooney's record as the youngest ever scorer in the tournament's history.

Kuhn firmly believes in creating a strong team spirit in the Swiss camp, something which perhaps was shown during the fiery qualification play-off with Turkey.

Switzerland made the play-offs after emerging from the tightest group in the European region. Ireland and Israel just missed out as the Swiss sneaked in behind France.

Switzerland put a foot in the final after winning the first leg 2-0 on home turf. There was already an undercurrent of controversy as Turkey complained about their treatment by both officials and media. Then when Switzerland arrived in Istanbul ahead of the second leg they were held in the airport for hours and their team coach was pelted with missiles.

It all boiled over when Switzerland qualified for the World Cup despite losing 4-2, going through on the away goals rule. It was in the tunnel after the game when troubled really flared. The ugly scenes led to Turkey being ordered to play their next six home games behind closed doors. Among other sanctions, there were suspensions for player Benjamin Huggel and also Stephan Meyer, the physiotherapist of Swiss national team.

That only served to stiffen the side's resolved, especially among their young stars who had become prominent members of the first eleven in the latter part of qualifying - Arensal's Philippe Senderos and Tranquillo Barnetta of Bayer Leverkusen to name two.

One to watch

Much will rest on the shoulders of star striker Alexander Frei, who himself is no stranger to controversy. He exited Euro 2004 in shame after television cameras spotted him spitting at England midfielder Steven Gerrard, for which he was eventually banned for three international matches.

And Frei was also at the centre of things during the Turkish play-off battles, with opposing coach Fatih Terim accusing the player of swearing at him and making obscene hand gestures.

A natural predator in the box, Frei has been as prolific as anyone in the French First Division with Stade Rennes over the last couple of years, though he does tend to have fragile confidence.

Switzerland's talisman, the striker hit a rich vein of form during the World Cup 2006 qualifying campaign, netting seven times, including the crucial opener in the play-off second leg against Turkey.

The 26-year-old will look to utilise his pace as much as his strength in Germany. He played in Switzerland with Basle, FC Thun and Lucerne. It was with Lucerne that he learnt from Swiss great Kubilay Turkyilmaz, and an increasing goals tally led to a move to Servette in 2000. He scored 36 times for the club before being sold to Rennes in the January transfer window of 2002/03.

Now fit again after a troublesome groin injury, Frei will look to add to his 42 caps - as well as his goals tally of 23 as he closes on Kubilay Turkyilmaz's all-time record of 34.

Frei is central to Switzerland's hopes of a successful tournament. If he finds form they have every chance of progressing but if fitness or touch in front of goal is lacking, Kuhn's team may struggle to make an impact.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.