Stars of the future chart World Cup glory
The young guns of Swiss football face their biggest test to date at the World Youth Championship in the Netherlands, which kicked off on Friday.
It is the first time that Switzerland’s under-20s have qualified for the tournament and their immediate challenge will be to get past a tough opening group.
As baptisms of fire go, they don’t come much hotter than Switzerland’s first-round opponents: Brazil are the reigning world champions, South Korea won the Asia qualifying group and Nigeria came out on top in Africa.
However, the Swiss enter the competition safe in the knowledge that they can live with the best.
Nine of the squad won the under-17 European Championship in Italy in 2002 – the country’s first title in international football. Two years later, the team reached the semi-finals of the under-19 European Championship held in Switzerland.
If the Swiss are to progress much will depend on the performance of four players – Tranquillo Barnetta (Hannover 96), Reto Ziegler (Tottenham Hotspur), Johan Vonlanthen (Brescia) and Philippe Senderos (Arsenal) – who were in the senior squad for Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against the Faroe Islands.
The first three all featured in the 3-1 win in Toftir, but Senderos had to pull out at the last minute due to tonsillitis.
Senderos, who will captain the under-20s, told swissinfo that the team were going there as underdogs but confident of making an impression on the tournament.
"When you’re Switzerland you’re always outsiders, even if you’re European champions at under-17," he said. "But we know we’ve got a great team, with plenty of quality and experience, and we have to stay conscious of that fact."
"I think for Swiss football and for me personally it’s very important to play in a World Cup," he added. "You don’t go to a World Cup every day."
Swiss hopes, however, suffered a blow last week when defender Vallon Behrami, who plays for Hellas Verona in Italy, was ruled out through injury.
Other Swiss players to watch out for in the Netherlands are Johan Djourou (Arsenal), Fabrizio Zambrella (Brescia), and Guilherme Afonso (FC Twente).
The team’s preparations have gone well. The Swiss are unbeaten in their last seven games and won both their friendlies ahead of the tournament, including a hard-fought 1-0 win over a tough Egyptian side on Saturday.
"We needed a match like that, against a team that have also qualified for the finals of the World Cup, before starting the competition," revealed head coach Pierre-André Schürmann. "I am equally happy with the level of commitment as with the quality of our play."
Schürmann says getting to the finals of the World Youth Championship represents a "milestone" for the Swiss Football Association and its youth-development efforts.
And even though the coach admits his side face a daunting task in the opening phase of the competition, he believes the players have no reason to fear Nigeria, Brazil or South Korea.
"The players are mentally very strong, and I believe we can expect a lot of them in Holland," he said.
swissinfo, Adam Beaumont
Switzerland’s first-round matches:
June 12: South Korea in Emmen.
June 15: Brazil in Emmen.
June 18: Nigeria in Enschede.
Switzerland qualified for the tournament, which runs from June 10 to July 2, by reaching the semi-finals of last year’s under-19 European Championship.
Nine of the current under-20s side played in the team that were crowned European under-17 champions in 2002.
Many of the players ply their trade abroad and four of them have played for the senior national team.
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