Monday, November 16, 2009

Top Of The World


To almost universal disbelief, Switzerland sensationally triumphed in the 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, beating host nation Nigeria 1-0 in yesterday’s final in Abuja. This is the first time that Switzerland have won this competition, but then again, it is the first time that they have qualified in their modest history. In fact, no Swiss football team of any age has ever won a world championship. The victorious coach, Dani Ryser, said that it was a historic day for Swiss football, while the television commentator likened it to Roger Federer winning his first Wimbledon. Heady stuff, but it’s true that the match was broadcast in 190 countries – not the insular UK obviously, where viewers were instead presented with Southampton against Brighton & Hove Albion.

The reigning champions Nigeria were the overwhelming favourites to win an unprecedented fourth title at Under-17 level. Roared on by a packed stadium of 64,000 passionate fans, complete with national dress and noisy horns, the most successful side in the history of youth football must surely have anticipated the Swiss wilting in the 30-degree heat. However, little Switzerland (population 8 million) managed to defeat a country twenty times its size, even preventing the free-flowing young eagles from scoring for the only time in the event.

"Kissed for the very first time"

Indeed, the hosts started like “a swarm of mosquitoes” per Tages-Anzeiger, piling the pressure onto the beleaguered Swiss defence and creating three good chances in the opening fifteen minutes. After only three minutes, Abdul Ajagun was denied when his shot from the edge of the penalty area was cleared off the line by central defender Charyl Chappuis. Only a minute later, the outstanding Swiss goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist pushed away a shot from Aigbe Oliha, while Kenneth Omeruo’s towering header from a corner whistled just wide. The half ended as it had started with the promising Sani Emmanuel wasting a great chance when he mistimed his chip.

There was no doubt that the Swiss had enjoyed some Lady Luck, but it was a steely defensive effort. The Nigerians had created almost all the chances, but they had failed to convert any of them and they looked a little nervous on their return to the dressing room. On the other hand, the Swiss were delighted to be level. After the match, star striker Haris Seferovic said, “we knew that Nigeria could not maintain the same tempo as the first half”.

"We are the champions"

Nevertheless, Switzerland were indebted to their brilliant goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist, who made a series of sparkling saves to deny the opposition, despite taking a boot to the head after only ten minutes which required lengthy treatment. His match-winning display was rewarded with the Golden Glove award for the tournament’s best goalkeeper. He only conceded seven goals in as many games and it was not difficult to see why Aston Villa had already snapped him up. In the quarter-final, he had deflected a penalty against the Italians to ensure that his team continued their progress.

However, there’s a reason why people often talk of a “game of two halves” and the momentum turned in the second half. Switzerland emerged from their defensive shell and sought to punish their wasteful opponents. The much vaunted strike partnership of Haris Seferovic and Nassim Ben Khalifa combined beautifully in the 56th minute to open up the Nigerian defence, though Seferovic shot narrowly wide. The tall striker made amends six minutes later, when he leaped high to head a corner back into the far side of the net for the decisive goal.

"Thank you for sending me ... a medal"

The Swiss-born youngster with roots in Bosnia-Herzegovina cites Barcelona superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, also of Bosnian heritage, as his biggest influence and you can see the similarities in his predatory instinct for goals. He narrowly missed out on the Golden Shoe for the tournament’s top scorer, as his five goals required more playing time than the eventual winner, Spain’s Borja. He happily acknowledged the assistance from playmaker Ben Khalifa, emphasising the importance of the understanding developed at club level with Grasshoppers:

Nassim Ben Khalifa and I are a dream partnership. We know each other inside out and know exactly where the other is going to be and where to play the ball.

At the tender age of seventeen, Ben Khalifa already plays regularly for his club in the Super League (Switzerland’s top division), where he has demonstrated blistering pace, exquisite technique and composure in the box. A series of impressive all-round displays in Nigeria, including four goals and three assists, contributed to him winning the Silver Ball for the second best player in the tournament, as voted for by the world’s media. His football intelligence was clear when he was asked to comment on the winning goal:

We knew that Nigeria had a few tactical weaknesses, so we decided to approach the game in the same way we did against Brazil. Luck played a part of course, but you need that. We made sure we hit corners to the back post because we knew that the Nigerians never put a player there.

"Heavens above"

Nigeria were in no mood to relinquish their title without a struggle and in one attack they hit the bar and had the ball in the back of the net in the resulting goalmouth melee, though the referee disallowed it for an infringement on Siegrist. However, the Swiss teenagers kept their composure to become champions.

Although coach Dani Ryser admitted that, “it was close and we were lucky”, nobody could argue that the Swiss underdogs did not deserve their success, as they won all seven of their games in the tournament. Their march to victory included wins against the traditional power houses of Brazil, Germany and Italy and they booked their place in the final with a thumping 4-0 defeat of the much-fancied Colombian team in the semis.

Although Switzerland’s victory is astounding, it should not really be that much of a surprise, given that the team is unbeaten since May, when they reached the semi-finals of the Under-17 European Championship before losing to Holland. The football public began to pay them attention when they eliminated France and Spain at the group stages. The defence is difficult to breach with Charyl Chappuis and captain Frédéric Veseli forming a formidable defensive duo, aided and abetted by the rugged full-backs, Bruno Martignoni and Ricardo Rodriguez, who are often seen marauding up the wings. In the middle there is a classic mixture of creativity, mainly from Lazio’s Pajtim Kasami, who was nominated for the Golden Ball, and defensive cover, with Oliver Buff filling the role of holding midfielder. Apart from the strikers, on the wings there are equally eye-catching players in Janick Kamber and Granit Xhaka.

"See you later"

The trophy is a crowning achievement and a “dream of a farewell present” for the Swiss Football Association’s Technical Director, Hansruedi Hasler, who is retiring at the end of the year, having been responsible for nurturing young Swiss players for fifteen years:

Thanks to the good work by the clubs and the football association, young players today are significantly better developed. They are physically stronger, mentally more advanced and technically very, very strong. As a result, every year there are fifteen to twenty good players from whom the association can build a good team. In the mid-1990s on the other hand, the talent pool was limited.

If Hasler is the godfather of the team, coach Dani Ryser is the father of their success. A calm, meticulous man, Hasler described Ryser as a “tactical fox” who has a plan for every situation. Acclaimed by the national press as “perhaps the perfect coach for this Under-17 team”, he was also praised by the captain, Manchester City’s Frédéric Veseli, who said that Ryser “always finds the right approach to keep concentration levels high. It is his merit that we are such a close, organised team”.

"Fox in the box"

Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to the team’s coach is that they did not play like a Swiss side. They played aggressively and with confidence, taking every opportunity to attack with speed and skill. Married to the usual Swiss qualities of tactical discipline and high work rate, this has produced a sparkling side that scored eighteen times in their seven matches, a total that only Spain matched in the tournament. As Ryser said, “We have no pressure, but a lot of pleasure”.

At least Switzerland’s success made irrelevant the question of the age of the Nigerian players. Despite FIFA President Sepp Blatter dismissing the accusations (“Our organisation is built on trust and respect”), Nigeria has form when it comes to manipulating players’ ages and FIFA has introduced an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) examination to test the teams, though the results are far from accurate. Suspicions were further raised when a former Nigerian international, now club owner and lawyer produced a 2002 squad photograph that included current Under-17 captain Fortune Chukwudi, meaning that he would now be an incredible twenty-five years old.

"Something to hide?"

Possibly the most inspiring aspect of Switzerland’s victory is the multicultural (“multikulti”) aspect of the winning team with an amazing thirteen of the twenty-one man squad having dual nationality, including Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Italy, Portugal, Tunisia, Chile, Ghana and the Congo. I don’t know whether that would cause anguish to the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP), but hopefully the team’s fantastic achievement fills them with as much pride as the rest of the Swiss.

The concern is whether these players will remain with the Swiss national team or be tempted to switch allegiance to their country of origin, as has happened in the past with the likes of Mladen Petric, Ivan Rakitic and Zdravko Kuzmanovic, who chose to play for Croatia and Serbia. It has been reported that Tunisia are already making overtures to the exciting Nassim Ben Khalifa, while Albania are trying to tempt Granit Xhaka. Against that, the line-up for Switzerland’s recent World Cup qualifier against Israel included seven dual nationals. For the moment, the prospects look good: Ricardo Rodriguez (Chile) said, “I grew up in Schwamendingen, I would definitely play for the national team”; André Goncalves (Portugal) confirmed, “For me, only Switzerland comes into question”; while Haris Seferovic (Bosnia) agreed, “I always promised to play for Switzerland”.

"Many deserving Swiss - and Sepp Blatter"

Of course, the best way to get young players to commit to Switzerland is success, which this group has already experienced, but coach Ryser has some wise words for his charges:

Winning the title is wonderful, but it's important that they don't get carried away. If they think they've made it now, then they won't win a thing next year. I hope that some of my lads will be playing in Brazil in 2014 - hopefully with as much success as they've had here in Nigeria.

Yesterday was the biggest moment in the history of Swiss football and it arrived on African soil. Let’s see how the seniors do next year in another part of the Dark Continent.

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