Swiss seek fond farewell for 'Gottmar' Hitzfeld
Jonathan Fowler/AFP · 15 May 2014, 11:23
Published: 15 May 2014 11:23 GMT+02:00
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In their third consecutive World Cup, the "Nati" are out to prove that their seventh place in FIFA's global rankings is not a statistical fluke.
The 65-year-old German Hitzfeld has set his sights on at least clearing Group E, where Switzerland face France, Ecuador and Honduras.
Reaching the last 16 would erase Switzerland's bad memories of 2010 in South Africa.
They were the only team to beat eventual champions Spain, winning 1-0 in their opening game, but then lost 1-0 to Chile and drew 0-0 with Honduras and so failed to reach the knockout stage.
That was a blow after their showing in Germany in 2006 under Hitzfeld's predecessor, Swiss icon Köbi Kuhn.
There, they finished top of their group, ahead of France, South Korea and Togo, but were knocked out on penalties by Ukraine in the next round.
Former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich boss Hitzfeld has said the looming tournament will bring down the curtain on his three-decade coaching career.
Though his star fell after his failure to reach the 2012 European Championships, Hitzfeld rebounded and is now nicknamed "Gottmar" -- a play on the German for God.
Football is rivalled only by ice hockey and skiing as the Alpine country's top spectator sport.
Average crowds of 11,000 per match are small compared to many European leagues, but multiple Swiss champions and 2013 Europa League semi-finalists FC Basel pull in 28,000.
The country of 8.1 million also punches above its weight for players fed into the leagues of Germany, Italy, England and Spain.
Like Kuhn, Hitzfeld has tapped Switzerland's admired youth system, drawing the highly-rated squad that won the 2009 Under-17 World Cup -- Switzerland's only international trophy.
Among them are 22-year-old Haris Seferovic, at Real Sociedad, plus 21-year-olds Granit Xhaka of Borussia Monchengladbach and Pajtim Kasami of Fulham.
Like 22-year-old Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri, the players are the Swiss version of the "rainbow" teams in Europe that have been reinvigorated by migrants
They are part of a Balkan migrant community which emerged when seasonal workers came from the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s and which expanded when Switzerland admitted refugees from the region's wars of the 1990s.
Fittingly, Hitzfeld's chosen successor, Lazio manager Vladimir Petkovic, is Yugoslav-born but spent much of his career in Italian-speaking Switzerland.
On the footballing front, the omens for Brazil are mixed, however.
A 16-match unbeaten streak -- including surprise defeats of Germany and Brazil in friendlies -- ended in November when they lost 2-1 in South Korea.
Nor was their World Cup qualifying run the toughest, with opponents in the shape of Albania, Cyprus, Iceland, Norway and Slovenia.
The Swiss came top despite being held to draws by Cyprus and Iceland -- who provided a stern lesson by clawing back from 4-1 down to level at 4-4.
To fine-tune their skills for Brazil, they set up home friendlies against Croatia, with whom they drew 2-2 in March, Jamaica in May and Peru two weeks before their opening World Cup match against Ecuador on June 15th.