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Swiss watching from sidelines

Police with sniffer dogs do last minute security checks

(Keystone)

World football's biggest party has got underway in Seoul, and once again the Swiss aren't invited.

Switzerland's top footballers are having to watch the World Cup on television like the rest of us after failing to qualify for the finals in Japan and South Korea.

It's the third time in a row that the Swiss have missed out on a major football tournament, following similar disappointments in the qualifying stages of the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.

This time around, the national side didn't even come close. Under Argentinian coach Enzo Trossero and his successor Köbi Kuhn, Switzerland could only manage fourth place in their qualifying group, seven points behind group winners Russia.

Television rights

The team's failure even prompted fears of a World Cup blackout in Switzerland with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation refusing to buy expensive television rights for an event that won't involve the national team.

Private German channel Sat 1 have since secured a deal to broadcast the tournament to German-speaking parts of Switzerland via their cable network, although satellite subscribers will not be able to receive the pictures.

But with many Swiss households also picking up broadcasts from neighbouring countries, technical difficulties aren't likely to stop too many football fans from following the action.

Seven-hour time difference

Getting around the boss may be a tougher proposition. With a seven-hour time difference separating Switzerland from Japan and South Korea, the World Cup matches are all due to take place during Swiss office hours.

One Swiss university recently estimated that the tournament could cost the country's companies up to SFr 300 million ($189 million) with employees expected to spend a total of 5.8 million hours in front of their television sets.

Interest in the World Cup is bound to be high among immigrant communities whose teams have qualified for the finals, while many Swiss will follow the fortunes of their German, French and Italian neighbours with varying degrees of fondness.

For those who insist on finding some Swiss interest at the finals, however, there is some hope.

Our man in Daegu

Top class referee Urs Meier is the only true Swiss actually set to step onto a football pitch at the World Cup. Just over three weeks after taking charge of the Champions League final in Glasgow, Meier is due to referee the match between South Korea and the USA in Daegu on June 10.

Although Meier will be the only Swiss national in action, one coach and 13 of the players involved in this year's tournament have past, present or future ties to Switzerland.

Lucerne's Nigerian goalkeeper Ike Shorunmu, St Gallen's South African midfielder Teboho Mokoena and Basel's South African striker George Koumantarakis are the three players currently based in Switzerland, although Mokoena is expected to leave St Gallen at the end of the summer.

A further nine players (Senegal's Malik Diop, Henri Camara, Papa Bouba Diop and Pape Thiaw, Brazilian goalkeeper Dida, Slovenian forward Mladen Rudonja, Polish midfielder Tomas Rzasa, Nigerian striker James Obiorah and Paraguay forward José Cardozo) have all played for Swiss league clubs at some point in their career, while China's Serbian coach Velibor Milutinovic has fond memories of playing for FC Winterthur in the 1960s.

One to watch

The youngest player at this year's World Cup finals, Nigeria's Femi Opabunmi, is meanwhile set to join Grasshoppers Zurich once the tournament is over. The 17-year-old forward, who was the second highest scorer at last year's under-17 world championships, is expected to play in the Zurich club's youth side next season.

Gamblers with an eye for all things Swiss could always resort to sweepstakes based on the number of yellow cards flourished by Meier or the number of minutes played by Opabunmi - the rest of the country's football fans will just be hoping for better things from their team once qualifying begins for the 2004 European Championships.

by Mark Ledsom with agencies

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