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Athletes look back on drama-filled year

An unidentified athlete makes his or her mark at the Swiss Athletics Championships in February Keystone

2011 was certainly an eventful year off the pitch/track/rink/piste – but there was no shortage of action on it either.

It was the best of times for Swiss football; it was also the worst of times. Basel’s Champions League exploits were sadly overshadowed by Switzerland’s failure to qualify for Euro 2012, not to mention further embarrassment generated by Sepp Blatter and an ongoing legal spat involving FC Sion.

FC Basel were responsible for the “miracle of St Jacob’s stadium”, to quote the excitable tabloid Blick, when they beat Manchester United 2-1 on December 8 to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League, club football’s most prestigious tournament.

It’s the first time a Swiss side has ever got this far, and all eyes will be back on St Jacob’s on February 22, when Basel take on neighbours – and four-time Champions League winners – Bayern Munich.

But at one point there was talk of the match being called off unless a bitter dispute could be sorted out between world football’s governing body Fifa, the Swiss Football Association and Swiss club Sion.

To cut a very long and complicated story short, Fifa announced on December 17 it would suspend the Swiss Football Association on January 14 if it did not take action against Sion for fielding players that, according to Fifa, were ineligible.

Sion showed no sign of backing down and on December 28 filed a complaint with the Zurich public prosecutor, accusing Fifa of “unacceptable blackmail”. Two days later, however, the Swiss Football Association docked Sion 36 points.

The national side would also have been affected, although following their 2-0 defeat to Wales in October – then ranked more than 70 places below Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team – they won’t be travelling to Poland and Ukraine in June for Euro 2012 anyway.

Negative headlines

The less said about Sepp Blatter, the 75-year-old Swiss president of Zurich-based Fifa, the better.

In June, Blatter was re-elected – unchallenged – for a fourth consecutive term. He swiftly promised anti-corruption reforms after last year’s process of choosing the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts – in addition to his re-election – were mired in controversy.

Sport Minister Ueli Maurer demanded Fifa provide an account of all allegations levelled against it along with evidence that the organisation was working to clean up its act. If it failed to comply, Fifa could face losing its privileges as a sporting association and its associated tax breaks.

Blatter also faced global calls for his resignation in November when he denied football had a problem with racism on the field and said any incidents should be settled by a handshake. He later apologised.

Net work

A better Swiss role model is Roger Federer, although the 30-year-old world number three had a mixed 12 months.

Despite beating man-of-the-year Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at Roland Garros, Federer failed to win any of the four grand slam events for the first time since 2002.

Nevertheless, he can go into 2012 with confidence, having ended the year winning two titles and the World Tour Finals. The Australian Open, which begins on January 16, could well be his 17th major title.

There was also good news for the Swiss Davis Cup team, which in September beat Australia to return to the World Group. They face the United States on February 10-12.

Stanislas Wawrinka ended the year a respectable 17, but Swiss women’s tennis took a hit in May when Patty Schnyder announced her retirement. Schnyder, now 33, spent 94 weeks in the top ten and in 2004 reached the semifinals at the Australian Open. Switzerland’s top-ranked female is now Stefanie Vögele, currently 138th in the world.

Mountain pressure

Swiss women are also struggling up in the mountains. They didn’t pick up a single medal at the World Ski Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in February, where only Didier Cuche’s silver in the downhill spared Swiss blushes.

Cuche, still racing at 37, also won the World Cup downhill and super-G titles and was crowned Swiss Sportsman of the Year for his troubles.

His female equivalent was ice skater Sarah Meier, who surprised everyone – not least herself – when she became the European figure skating champion in January (click on the link to see Meier’s ice-melting reaction when she saw her marks). The 27-year-old retired afterwards.

Other athletes who will look back fondly on 2011 include cross-country skier Dario Cologna, who won the overall World Cup for the second time, and fencer Tiffany Géroudet, who won gold at the European Fencing Championships – the first Swiss gold for 29 years.

Also, Swann Oberson won the women’s five-kilometre race at the open water world championships in Shanghai.

Olympic hopes

Not everyone can be a winner, however. In December, racing driver Sébastien Buemi learnt he had been dropped by Formula One team Toro Rosso after two seasons. He finished 16th twice.

The Zurich Weltklasse meeting is one of the highlights of the athletics calendar, but much-touted hurdler Lisa Urech will want to forget it this year: she ran around the first three hurdles and then gave up.

The national ice hockey squad, lacking not only scorers but also individuals who could inspire the rest of the team, finished ninth in the World Championships.

Ariella Kaeslin, Switzerland’s most successful-ever gymnast and three-times-in-a-row Swiss Sportswoman of the Year, caught everyone by surprise in July when she quit aged 23, just a year before the Olympic Games.

So, that was the year that was – all preparation now turns to London, where from the end of July the Swiss will hope to improve on the two golds and four bronzes they won in Beijing in 2008.

Sportsman of the Year:

Didier Cuche (alpine skiing)


Sportswoman of the Year:

Sarah Meier (gymnastics)  

Team of the Year:

U21 footballers 

Newcomer of the Year:

Giulia Steingruber (gymnastics)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR