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Jun 7, 2008

Frei distress may be Swiss' defining moment

Plans can take two years to implement and seconds to destroy, as Switzerland know to their cost.

One mistimed, though seemingly innocuous challenge from Zdenek Grygera, and one instant where Alexander Frei crumpled to the Basel turf, rendered Kobi Kuhn's strategy redundant. Frei ended the match on crutches, rather than on the winning side.

The veteran manager cannot be blamed for basing his hopes around Frei, but as the second half showed, two years of friendlies serve as an inadequate preparation for the sudden departure of the best player.

Even before Vaclav Sverkos condemned Switzerland to defeat in the opening fixture of Euro 2008, there was a sense that the defining moment of the match had already occurred; it may yet prove the most memorable moment of Switzerland's tournament, but not in the desired way.

And if the hosts' progress tends to be essential to any competition's feelgood factor, that hardly bodes well for Euro 2008. The general public's willingness to embrace its many visitors can depend upon their own favourites' fortunes.

But even with group stages, international tournaments provide few opportunities for second acts, especially when Portugal present imposing opponents in their third fixture. This is not quite knockout football but it borders on it, and the blow Sverkos struck Switzerland has left them reeling. There can be a cruelty, too, to three weeks of international football than an entire season can struggle to replicate. Skippering his country on home soil, representing their best chance to overcome more fancied teams, it was understandable that Frei departed in tears.

As captain, record scorer and principal striker, he had hoovered up all available positions. Deprived of Frei, there was a power vacuum. While Ludovic Magnin donned the armband, Switzerland may not have been leaderless, but they lacked a leader of the line of the stature of Frei, and a player with his blend of speed, skill and penetrative running. He had indulged in an intriguing contest with Petr Cech that was curtailed just before half-time. The Czech Republic goalkeeper's victory in it was pivotal to the first match of the European Championships.

But Frei's departure illustrated how unstable the formula for success for the majority of nations is. Countries of seven million people rarely have the depth of talent to weather such losses and smaller states are inevitably dependent on the form and fitness of their blue-chip players. Frei ranks among Switzerland's, as the contrast between the spirited striker from Borussia Dortmund and the rest of the forward line displayed.

Marco Streller, for instance, has vowed to depart from international football after Euro 2008. It is hard to imagine Switzerland would have fared any worse had the anonymous forward brought his retirement forward by a month or so.

Among the more intriguing consequences of Frei's exit – in sporting tragedy rather than the ignominy of the ban he incurred in Euro 2004 for depositing phlegm on Steven Gerrard – was the identity of his replacement.

Eren Derdiyok appeared the chosen man, but then Hakan Yakin appeared instead after the half-time interval to head his best opportunity wastefully wide. It is tempting to wonder if the teenage target man would have fared better; such decisions can be the difference. What is certain is that the Czechs' willingness to revise their plans proved more successful. Jan Koller's ineffectual display as an isolated striker was ended when coach Karel Bruckner introduced the untried Sverkos.

Though they were faulty in Basel, Switzerland merit sympathy, and not merely because Sverkos' winner went in off his shin. Kuhn's attentions have had to be diverted towards his ill wife this week and, while it is in no way comparable, his team were unfortunate on the field. They had a pair of plausible penalty appeals and Johan Vonlanthen struck the woodwork. They fashioned more chances and required Cech to be arguably the best performer on the pitch.

Yet there was rarely the conviction that Switzerland would score. Without Frei, too, too few others seemed to covet the role of talisman. The first half was notable for the audacity and evident skills of right winger Valon Behrami, very much a footballer from the bling generation. The second shows he needs to display the substance to complement to his ostentatious substance.

Tranquillo Barnetta at least justified his billing as their most creative player, but finishers are required to breach the Turkish and Portuguese defences.

Yet, almost six years after winning the vote to host the European Championships and virtually two since their last competitive game, the penalty shootout defeat to Ukraine in the World Cup, Switzerland's hopes appeared to dissipate after 90 minutes. They were reduced greatly after 40 minutes when Frei took his tearful leave. And for the sake of Euro 2008 as well as the struggling Swiss, it is to be hoped that the sight of Frei on crutches will become a metaphor for a side hampered by his absence.


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