Switzerland have tied 1-1 against defending champions Italy in the last friendly match before the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa.
After the team’s recent string of unimpressive performances, the draw against the historically more powerful neighbour bodes well for the Swiss, who played on Saturday with a fire fans have not seen for some time.
"We've learned something in the organisation," coach Ottmar Hitzfeld told Swiss television after the game. "We played the world champions with patience and also had plenty of possession. We also had a lot of rotation and so created space, not only horizontally but also vertically."
Already just three minutes in striker Blaise N’Kufo narrowly missed on a cross from Stephan Lichtsteiner. The team’s passes connected. They carried out attacks efficiently and fast. Instead of playing defensively, Swiss midfielders kept the pressure up, which led to the game’s first goal.
But in the end the national squad could not overcome Italy's defences or contain its attacks outright and both squads walked away from 30,000 spectators in Geneva with a tie.
Switzerland now heads to South Africa for the first World Cup match on June 16, when the squad face Spain, the favourites of group H.
It’ll be an uphill battle for the Swiss, ranked 24th. The Spanish, ranked second behind Brazil, have never lost against any team in their group, which also includes Honduras and Chile.
The Swiss have held their own against Italy in past World Cup matches with two wins to Italy’s one, but the last time the Swiss won against Italy was 17 years ago.
Friendly matches have been another story. In total Switzerland have lost 23 times to the Italians and won just four with 17 draws, including a scoreless split ten months ago in Basel. In all, the Italians, ranked fifth, have out-scored the Swiss with 86 goals to 52, according to Fifa statistics.
The Swiss started out strong on Saturday. About ten minutes into the game midfielder Gökhan Inler fought his way close to the penalty area, faked hard to the left and unleashed a precise shot that sailed past Italian goalie Federico Marchetti and into the bottom corner of the net.
The crowd exploded with joy. It was the first goal the Swiss had made in a game situation in more than 500 minutes of play. But the moment would not last.
Just four minutes later Italy equalised. Swiss defences collapsed and Italian forward Fabio Quagliarella headed the ball on a lazy arc that fell rather undramatically into the net past goalkeeper Diego Benaglio. “A strange goal,” a Swiss television announcer said.
The second half brought both teams scoring opportunities but neither converted them. Play was relatively clean, with only Italian Gennaro Gattuso getting a yellow card for slamming into Swiss Albert Bunjaku.
Italy are in group F with New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay and the favourites to emerge the winners of that group. They play Paraguay on June 14.
Italy is the only country along with Brazil to have won the World Cup twice in a row, in 1934 and 1938.
Hitzfeld said ahead of Saturday’s game that playing a team like Italy would help get the Swiss squad ready for their debut match against Spain, more so than previous warm-up matches.
“We deliberately chose Italy as an opponent,” Hitzfeld said on the team’s website. “We are working towards the game against Spain. Italy play differently than Spain, but the big name, the players’ experience, their cleverness, this is a real test for us.”
Switzerland’s road to the tournament has been rocky. After squeaking by Greece with just one point to spare during the qualifying rounds last year, the Swiss have seemed unable to collect any lasting momentum. On Tuesday they lost 1-0 to Costa Rica in a friendly in Sion, the fourth-straight loss for the team. Previous losses went to Norway and Uruguay as well.
The hard lessons are likely to continue with Spain when the teams meet in Durban in 11 days. The Spanish have beaten the Swiss 15 times in all and twice at World Cup matches. The Swiss have never beaten the Spanish in any football competition but have drawn twice.
During the last World Cup in Germany in 2006 the Swiss advanced into the second round of play but made it no farther after a loss to Ukraine on penalty kicks.
The squad then had a disappointing run at home during the Euro 2008, when the team was eliminated after three matches.
Tim Neville, swissinfo.ch and agencies
Switzerland may be among the underdogs in the 2010 World Cup but football is not immune to upsets.
Greece were not tipped to win the 2004 European Championships, and caused a big upset when they beat host nation Portugal in the final. Germany, Italy and Spain were knocked out in the group stage.
In 1992, Denmark won the European Championships, despite not even being in the original line-up. They took the then Yugoslavia’s place, which dropped out over its internal disputes. The Danes won against the reigning world champions Germany, having ousted defending European champions the Netherlands in the semifinals.
In the World Cup, an upset was caused by West Germany in the final in Bern in 1954. The team, not then the football powerhouse they are now, beat the favourites Hungary 3-2. Hungary were 2-0 ahead after only eight minutes, but West Germany battled back to level the score. The match winner came in the second half.
This will be the ninth time that Switzerland compete in the World Cup. They reached the quarterfinals in 1934, 1938 and 1954.
Swiss match dates
June 16: Spain
June 21: Chile
June 25: Honduras