13 years ago, in Nigeria, Switzerland was announcing itself as a country with huge potential, after winning the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup. With a generation that had players like Haris Seferovic, Granit Xhaka, and Ricardo Rodriguez, the future seemed ensured for Switzerland, with an eye for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, when those players would be in their prime.
Sure, only those three players made it to Qatar, as football does not forgive and changes are inevitable, but Switzerland added top talent around the core of that team, with players such as Yann Sommer, Xherdan Shaqiri, Manuel Akanji, Remo Freuler and Breel Embolo adding different skills to the team.
The first two players also spearheaded another excellent generation that wrote history for Switzerland, becoming the first to reach the UEFA EURO Under-21 final in 2011, two years after their future teammates became world champions.
And for years, Switzerland was one of the most reliable teams in Europe, a compact block, that made it as far as the quarter-finals at the UEFA EURO 2020 and forced the reigning European champions, Italy, to a play-off in the Qatar 2022 Qualifiers, which saw the “Squadra Azzurra” drop out of contention after an unbelievable loss against North Macedonia.
The architect of the squad was Vladimir Petkovic, a Bosnian-born Swiss manager, that took the reigns of the squad in 2014, led the team for 78 matches, winning 41 of them, guiding the team in the knockout phase at two editions of the UEFA EURO in 2016 and 2020 and in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
After Petkovic resigned, another coach, Murat Yakin, himself a former Number 10 for Switzerland, took the team and tried to inspire it. At first, things looked excellent. Especially at Qatar 2022, where they won against Cameroon and Serbia in the group phase, falling behind Brazil, 0-1, after conceding late in the game.
Yakin added another dimension to the squad, which looked more attacking-minded, more unpredictable, with a penchant for scoring goals. But that made them even more vulnerable in defence. They also tried to be more direct, playing more on the strikers, but that was also an issue in some matches, as the players looked like they were struggling to adapt at times at the changes thrown at them.
This time, Yakin’s gamble to change the system in the Round of 16 against Portugal backfired immensely. Switzerland set up too aggressively, tried too much on attack, and failed to bring the goods on defence. In the end, it was one of the biggest losses in recent memory, a 6-1 drubbing, that will haunt the mind of Yakin in the years to come.
“We are very disappointed. On behalf of the team, I apologize to all the fans that we were not able to deliver our usual good performance. We had big plans for this tournament. But that’s football, from time to time the limits are shown. That was the case today. We lost the game in the first half and then we needed to chase Portugal. They were good, but I think the result was too big for what happened on the pitch,” said Xherdan Shaqiri, one of Switzerland’s scorers at the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
Yakin himself was an odd choice because he had the experience, both as a player, and as a coach, especially when he led Swiss giants FC Basel to two titles in 2013 and 2014. But before being named Switzerland’s manager, he was only coaching at Schaffhausen, a team in the second league. Some said that he might have lost the touch needed for such a difficult job.
“We know the system, the team knows the system. We simply never had access to the game and were too impatient, we looked for the path to attack too quickly. I’m sorry for the players and for the nation. It’s a great team, we can be proud of our achievements”, said Yakin after the game.
Sure, these words might comfort some of the players and some of the fans. But for players like Xhaka, Seferovic or Rodrigues, this might have well been their last edition of the FIFA World Cup. And for a winner at a younger age category to play their last game in such a big loss, it is surely disheartening.