Welcome to the wonderful world of Swiss football
While not regarded as a glamour tie, the Swiss have carved their own distinctive niche
Switzerland’s Hakan Yakin and Ireland’s Roy Keane during a World Cup qualifier in 2004. Photograph; Andrew Paton/Inpho
As Mick McCarthy prepares for his crucial Euro 2020 qualifying tie against Switzerland, spectators will hardly need to be reminded that games against the Swiss are not regarded as one of the glamour ties of world football and anybody hoping for a goal-fest tonight should be aware Switzerland rarely score or concede.
This is well-illustrated by the 2006 World Cup. Having drawn 0-0 with France and beaten both Togo and South Korea 2-0 in their Group, Switzerland played out a dull 0-0 stalemate with Ukraine in the round of 16 before being eliminated 3-0 on penalties.
These results made Switzerland both the only team ever to be knocked out of the World Cup without conceding a goal and the only side ever to miss all of their spot kicks in a shoot-out.
However, there is more to football than goals, and the true fan will turn out to appreciate a Swiss footballing tradition every bit as interesting and controversial as our own.
In the inter-war years Switzerland were one of the world’s strongest teams, reaching the quarter-finals of both the 1934 and 1938 World Cups and finishing as silver medalists at the 1924 Olympics.
The other time that Switzerland reached the quarter-final of the World Cup was in 1954 when they blew an early three-goal lead losing 7-5 by Austria in a match that remains the highest scoring in finals history.
Switzerland also became the smallest country ever to host the tournament; its neutrality ensuring that when the rights to host the 1954 tournament were awarded in 1946 it enjoyed the advantage of having stadiums that had not been flattened. The fact it was the only bidder also helped.
So assiduously neutral are the Swiss, that they were not even involved in the infamous “Battle of Berne”. This quarter-final encounter between Hungary and Brazil is still considered the most violent game in World Cup history.
Three red cards were issued as the game descended into a running battle with players fighting on the pitch, in the tunnel and even the dressing room. Feelings ran so high that the world’s best player, Ferenc Puskas, was accused of smashing a bottle over an opponent’s head even though injury had prevented him from playing in the match.
Shamefully Fifa imposed no sanctions. Understandably, English referee Arthur Ellis chose to spend much of his subsequent career adjudicating upon games in the absence of players by acting as an arbitrator for the pools panel and on the television show “It’s a Knockout!”
The most famous name in Swiss football is Joan Gamper, an outstanding all-round athlete and one of the founders of Zurich FC. When he was 22 Gamper visited an uncle in Catalonia and enjoyed it so much that he decided to stay and placed a newspaper advertisement to see if anyone would be interested in starting a football team. Eleven players turned up for a subsequent meeting enabling Barcelona FC to come into existence.
As club captain, Gamper would score an incredible 120 goals in 51 matches before serving five terms as club president. Gamper’s legacy continues to this day as the famous blue and red Barcelona colours were chosen by him in honour of his home team FC Basel.
The club’s training ground and academy are both named after him and every year Barcelona’s most prestigious pre-season friendly is contested for the Joan Gamper trophy which is presented to the winners by one of Gamper’s descendants.
Despite the fact that Switzerland has supplied numerous Premier League players, it has only produced one manger. The appointment of Christian Gross by Spurs was doomed from the outset. Keen to “experience how the fans feel” Gross travelled from Heathrow Airport to White Hart Lane on public transport before dramatically brandishing his tube ticket saying: “Hopefully it’ll be the ticket of my dreams”.
It wasn’t. However, the stunt led to such a level of mockery that Gross became the only manager in Premiership history to render his position untenable midway through his introductory press conference. On a more positive note, the return portion of Gross’ tube ticket was still valid when he was fired just nine months later.
More than 45 international sporting associations have their headquarters in Switzerland including both Fifa (Zurich) and Uefa (Nyon) with disputes being resolved in the nearby Court of Arbitration for Sport (Lausanne).
Creating such a “Silicon Valley of Sports” is worth €1 billion a year to the Swiss economy making them understandably keen to attract new business with both the International Judo Federation and European Professional Club Rugby being enticed away from Dublin in recent years.
Swiss nationals end up running many of these organisations with Sepp Blatter and subsequently Gianni Infantino running Fifa for two decades and counting.
Rarely does a country’s most dramatic football-related activity take place in the early hours of the morning in the lobby of a luxurious lakeside hotel. But the dawn raid conducted by Swiss police at the five-star Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich in May 2015 when seven senior Fifa officials were arrested merits that description.
Determined not to air their dirty laundry in public the men were shielded from waiting photographers by hotel staff holding up luxury bed linen. Later that day American attorney general Loretta Lynch and then FBI director James Comey held a press conference to outline the vast scale of the Fifa-Gate investigation, disclosing such levels of corruption that it constituted a “World Cup of Fraud”.
These events proved too much even for an organisation where one whistleblower was given the most insulting nickname imaginable – “Mr Clean”.
Despite being re-elected president at Congress days later, Blatter resigned ending his long-cherished hopes of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Worryingly for the Swiss, recent media reports suggest that Fifa is now seriously considering leaving Zurich, its home since 1932.
The Switzerland squad is ethnically diverse as highlighted by their Euro 2016 encounter with Albania. Ten of the Albanian squad were born or grew up in Switzerland and half-a-dozen Swiss players had Albanian ancestry.
Adding fraternal rivalry to the mix, Granit Xhaka played for Switzerland against his older brother Taulant who turned out for Albania. Watching the “Xhaka Derby” from the stands was proud mother Elmaze who diplomatically showed support for both sons by wearing a half-and-half jersey combining both national flags.
Just to add to the confusion both brothers were entitled to switch their allegiance to Kosovo following its admission by Fifa in 2016 meaning that one sibling could have played against the other for two different countries. Fortunately for Elmaze’s jersey-maker neither son moved.
Jerseys have, however, created surprising unrest in the Swiss game recently. Normally when supporters accuse players of being unfit to wear the shirt they are talking metaphorically rather than literally.
However, last May, Switzerland’s most famous club Grasshopper Zurich had their match in Lucerne abandoned when, trailing 4-0, their fans demanded that the players physically hand over their shirts. In a surprising break with tradition several players responded to this ultimatum by handing over their jerseys, perhaps viewing this supporter feedback as being more constructive than the fireworks thrown onto the pitch in March which required their match against Sion to be abandoned.
Thus, even if there is not a hatful of goals on Thursday, anyone attending stands a reasonable chance of walking home with a red and white jersey as a memento of the wonderful world of Swiss football.
James McDermott is a lecturer on law at UCD and occasional contributor to The Irish Times