Saturday is crunch time for Switzerland’s national football team, as Köbi Kuhn’s men bid for a place at the 2004 European Championships.This content was published on October 10, 2003 - 07:41
A win against Ireland in Basel would see the Swiss through to the tournament finals for only the second time in their history.
Following the global surge of interest in football, the European Championships are now commonly cited as the world’s third-biggest sporting event, coming in behind the football World Cup and Summer Olympics – but ahead of the Winter Olympics.
And, seven years after their brief appearance at the Euro 96 finals in England, Switzerland’s footballers now appear to have a good chance of reaching next year’s tournament in Portugal.
With just the one match remaining, the Swiss are currently on top of their group – although defeat on Saturday would see them being overtaken by Ireland and probably also by Russia, who play their final match at home to Georgia.
While a win would guarantee Switzerland a place at Euro 2004, a draw would be enough to secure at least second place in the group, and a chance to reach Portugal via the play-offs.
“A win against Ireland would certainly be a great birthday present,” joked Kuhn, who turns 60 the day after the match. “Our current position is fairly comfortable because our fate is in our own hands.
“Back when the draw was made and we found ourselves up against the World Cup finalists, Ireland and Russia, who would have thought that we’d be out in front going into the final game?”
The build-up to Saturday’s match has not been quite as relaxed as the manager’s words might suggest, however.
Personal disagreements between rival camps within the team were reported in the country’s newspapers earlier this week, forcing Kuhn to call a meeting with those involved.
“If you can’t prevent a problem from happening in the first place, then it’s just as well to make sure it’s addressed properly,” Kuhn told swissinfo on Thursday.
“There can be a danger in letting these things fester, so instead we’ve all spoken very directly and cleared up the matter. I think the team has actually come out all the stronger from this so-called low.”
Liverpool star Stéphane Henchoz, whose personal differences with fellow defender Murat Yakin were apparently at the centre of the disagreement, insisted that the media had exaggerated the scale of the problem.
“Our biggest problem was with the newspapers who were already writing these stories on Sunday before the team had even met up,” Henchoz told swissinfo.
“We did have a good discussion about things on Tuesday, and now we just want to forget what’s in the past and concentrate on the future, and in particular on Saturday’s game.”
Although Ireland are currently ranked 14th in the world, 30 places higher than Switzerland, it was Switzerland who snatched victory last October when the two sides met in Dublin.
Not that the Swiss players are simply expecting history to repeat itself on Saturday.
“The Irish didn’t make the best of starts to the campaign,” Swiss defender Bernt Haas told swissinfo, “and the game against us was especially disappointing from their point of view."
"But since then they’ve changed their manager and managed to put a winning streak together, which has taken them up to second in the group."
“We’re still on top, though,” Haas adds with a grin, “so that’s going to give us some confidence.”
Looking beyond the short-term celebrations that would follow a Swiss victory on Saturday, the national football association is hoping that qualification for the European Championships can help build on a number of recent successes by Swiss teams.
Last year, the Swiss under-17s won their age group’s European title, while the Swiss under-21s made it all the way to their tournament’s semi-finals. Now first team delegate Ernst Lämmli believes it’s time for the seniors to show their mettle.
“It’s incredibly important for the senior side to reach the finals, so that the younger players can see just what kind of perspectives are possible for them in the future,“ Lämmli told swissinfo.
“It’s also important for the senior players themselves that they can bring a successful campaign to a successful end.”
swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Schwyz
Switzerland are hoping to reach the European Championship finals for the first time since 1996.
A win against Ireland on Saturday would guarantee the team a place at Euro 2004.
Even with a draw, the Swiss would at least make the play-offs, but a defeat would almost certainly end their chances.
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