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Youth Rising: Switzerland & its Historic Run in Africa

Updated on August 7, 2017
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Russian Area Studies and Journalism.

Players and coaches of Switzerland's U-17 national team celebrate after defeating Nigeria 1-0 to win the nation's first major trophy at any age level.
Players and coaches of Switzerland's U-17 national team celebrate after defeating Nigeria 1-0 to win the nation's first major trophy at any age level. | Source

In 2009, football witnessed action all across Africa, where the continent hosted several tournaments throughout the year. South Africa is the first country that many people think of as the nation hosted the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. Egypt hosted the FIFA U-20 World Cup edition, and the tournament featured great games, ending with Ghana as champions.

Then there was the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. It was an opportunity for the African nation to become the first to win this tournament four times. Brazil and Argentina also vied to win the competition. Many thought Nigeria would get a proper coronation and celebration for its youth squad.

Instead, an unheralded European upstart defied all odds to win this tournament. This country featured a roster with an influx of multicultural players from different nationalities: that includes, but not limited to Spanish, Chilean, Portuguese, Tunisian, Macedonian, Bosnian and Kosovar descents.

Switzerland rode an unlikely triumph at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup as the nation reaped the rewards of that success to this date.

Surviving Iceland and Greece

For Switzerland, the road to Nigeria began in 2008 in Iceland as Switzerland faced the hosts as well as Norway and Ukraine. Switzerland started with a 2-1 victory over Iceland before two scoreless draws against Norway and Ukraine. Those results saw Switzerland qualify for the next phase of qualifying, the elite round of European qualifying, in second place.

Switzerland faced tougher opposition as its next three opponents fared better during qualifying. Poland and Greece were previous group winners from the last stage while Slovenia eliminated hosts Russia to reach this part of the competition.

Switzerland had to win its group in Greece to qualify for the World Cup. Things were not as Switzerland trailed Greece, 1-0 until a 50th-minute goal would go a long way in determining a group winner. Haris Seferovic scored the goal as the match finished 1-1; two days later, Seferovic scored again, but that goal proved decisive against Poland.

Switzerland needed to conclude with a better result against Slovenia than Greece would against Poland. Switzerland utterly outclassed Slovenia as Seferovic scored another goal, and another future senior member would score a hat-trick in this match - Nassim Ben Khalifa scored three times in the second half. Switzerland's 6-0 victory, coupled with Greece's 2-1 loss to Poland, meant Switzerland qualified for the 2009 UEFA U-17 Championship.

From there, Switzerland would reach the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup provided it did not finish last in its group.

Emulating the Stars from 2002

Switzerland many not have the prestigious youth history in soccer, but the nation did win the 2002 UEFA U-17 Championship. In that tournament, future stars emerged in Tranquillo Barnetta, Philippe Senderos, and Reto Ziegler. In 2005, Yann Sommer would take part in this same tournament, and it would be useful six years later as one five Swiss players who were part of the 2011 UEFA U-21 Team of the Tournament.

Switzerland looked to get out of a tricky group in Germany as it would have to face two nations yet again in the tournament in Spain and France, both having eliminated Switzerland from the tournament a year ago and reaching the tournament final as well. For Switzerland, a crucial moment came in its second match against Italy when Italy's goalkeeper Mattia Perin received a red card for his foul on Ben Khalifa. Switzerland capitalized on the ensuing penalty that Kofi Nimeley converted. Italy tied the match, but Switzerland fared better in the second half as it scored twice to win the game 3-1.

Draws against France and Spain saw Switzerland win the group, but would lose in the semi-finals to the Netherlands. The scoreless draw against Spain allowed Switzerland to reach the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

Switzerland did lose to the Netherlands 2-0, but Switzerland had upset the odds to reach the World Cup in Nigeria.

Now, Switzerland looked for more than pride in Africa.

Granit Xhaka (11) celebrates with teammates after scoring the go ahead goal against Japan in a FIFA U-17 World Cup match against Japan.
Granit Xhaka (11) celebrates with teammates after scoring the go ahead goal against Japan in a FIFA U-17 World Cup match against Japan. | Source
Swiss players celebrate after winning its match against Brazil 1-0 as Switzerland won all three games in the group stage.
Swiss players celebrate after winning its match against Brazil 1-0 as Switzerland won all three games in the group stage. | Source

When Switzerland upset Neymar and Brazil

Upsetting the Odds

When the groups came about for the FIFA U-17 World Cup on Aug. 7, 2009, Switzerland had the toughest draw among the six European nations in the tournament. Switzerland had to face 2005 champions Mexico, Japan and three-time champions Brazil; not only that Switzerland had the lowest odds of advancing past the group stage, so the nation looked to approach this tournament just as it did at the UEFA U-17 Championship with defense and timely scoring.

Switzerland did that on Oct. 24 against Mexico in unlikely fashion. His goal in the 22nd minute was not only Switzerland's first at this level but Pajtim Kasami scored the first goal of the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Switzerland played despite having less possession and having a man down. But the defense kept Mexico at bay as goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist stopped Mexico's offense. Switzerland won on its debut 2-0 against a former champion.

Three days later, Switzerland faced Japan when Takumi Miyayoshi scored twice in the opening 20 minutes before Seferovic scored right before halftime. Switzerland went on the offensive early in the second half where it missed two chances: a Ben Khalifa penalty which the Japanese goalkeeper saved before Seferovic's ensuing kick that struck the crossbar. Seferovic capitalized minutes later, however, to score his second of the match before Granit Xhaka scored to complete the comeback. Another goal by Ricardo Rodriguez had Switzerland on the verge of a knockout berth.

Despite allowing a late goal, Switzerland hung to win 4-3 and were assured a place in the knockout stage.

Switzerland continued its momentum as it denied Neymar and Brazil any goals on 25 shots. Ben Khalifa was the difference as his goal in the 21st minute meant Switzerland won the group. More important in the game was that Brazil had accumulated four yellow cards in the match, ultimately denying Brazil a knockout stage appearance because of its disciplinary record.

Magic through the Knockout Stages

Switzerland would be favorites against Germany, winners of the 2009 UEFA U-17 Championship. Germany finished third in group play, beginning with a 3-3 draw to host Nigeria after leading 3-0. However, it had been 33 years since Switzerland defeated Germany at any level in football.

Rodriguez and Seferovic scored goals during regulation for Switzerland, but Germany answered on both occasions. With the match tied at 2-2 and extra time looming, Switzerland nearly suffered a devastating blow. Having come on as a substitute in the 83rd minute, Sead Hajrovic received a red card for a dangerous tackle.

Despite the man disadvantage, Switzerland impressed in extra time; poor German defending allowed Andre Goncalves to score before Ben Khalifa scored added another goal (via a penalty kick) to put Switzerland up 4-2. Despite allowing a goal late, Switzerland held on to knock out another pre-tournament favorite.

In Switzerland's quarterfinal, Ben Khalifa opened the scoring for Switzerland against Italy after missing earlier in the match on a long range shot, Ben Khalifa scored in the 24th minute, before Italy replied on a goal from Federico Carraro. He was sent off in the team's first match of the tournament, but Oliver Buff gave his biggest contribution for Switzerland in the second half. His goal during a corner kick had Switzerland up 2-1.

Switzerland was in danger of relinquishing the lead quickly when captain Frederic Veseli was shown a straight red card after taking down Giacomo Beretta in the penalty box. Siegrist stopped the ensuing penalty kick, and Switzerland won once again.

Switzerland's semi-final opponent had luck en route to reaching this far. Colombia needed late goals to advance and force a penalty shootout after it began its campaign upsetting the Netherlands. This time around, Switzerland had its best game in ending Colombia's run in the tournament. The game began with an early dismissal from Colombia's Santiago Aria and Ben Khalifa capitalized by scoring on the ensuing penalty before Seferovic doubled the lead for Switzerland.

Seferovic's goal ranked second as the tournament's best goal, but by then, Switzerland made it clear that it had an attacking prowess as well. Colombia had no answers as Switzerland added goals from Bruno Martignoni and Rodriguez to win the match 4-0.

Let the Celebrations Begin

Miracle at Abuja

Switzerland made history as it played in its first FIFA-sanctioned tournament final in 85 years. Only Nigeria stood between Switzerland and history; the African nation also attempted to become the first nation to win the U-17 tournament four times.

From the beginning, Nigeria looked likely to score first as they had scored 17 goals in the first six games. Siegrist was tested several times but prevented any goals from going into the net.

Switzerland had one strong opportunity in the first half from Janick Kamber, but Nigerian goalkeeper Dami Paul stopped that attempt. Still, Nigeria held more possession and the opportunities, but all that was to show for was a scoreless stalemate.

Switzerland was where it wanted to be, and they would go on the offense for the second half, with Seferovic leading the way. Despite missing an earlier attempt wide of goal, Seferovic capitalized off of a corner kick as his header put Switzerland on the cusp of history. Nigeria launched several opportunities to tie the match, but in the end, time ran out.

Switzerland had upset all odd and at long last won a major tournament for the first time.

Haris Seferovic celebrates scoring a goal against Japan in the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Seferovic, of Bosnian descent, went on to finish as joint top goal scorer as he would go on to represent Switzerland in the 2014 World Cup.
Haris Seferovic celebrates scoring a goal against Japan in the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Seferovic, of Bosnian descent, went on to finish as joint top goal scorer as he would go on to represent Switzerland in the 2014 World Cup. | Source

The Birth of Switzerland as a relevant European power

There is no question that in the years since Switzerland's historic run in Nigeria, the people who made that tournament special still showcase their talents abroad.

Kasami, having scored the competition's opening goal, scored a brilliant goal on a volley while playing for Fulham at Selhurst Park. That goal, coming in a 4-1 victory against Crystal Palace, became a nominee for the 2014 FIFA Puskas Award (Goal of the Year). Also, Kasam and Ben Khalifa helped Switzerland qualify for the 2011 UEFA U-21 Championships in 2011; each scored goals against Sweden.

Ben Khalifa, Kasami, Xhaka and Siegrist participated in the 2011 tournament in which Switzerland reached the final before losing to Spain. Still, these four players helped Switzerland qualify for its first Olympic soccer tournament since 1928.

Golden Glove Award winner at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup, Siegrist remained an unused backup during Switzerland's run in Denmark;. Siegrist was also the backup to Diego Benaglio on Switzerland's 18-man squad at the London Olympics as Switzerland finished bottom in its group.

Also, on that 18-man squad in 2012 were Kasami and Buff, the latter a last-minute replacement after Xhaka withdrew from the squad. Buff went on the team after German club Borussia Möchengladbach requested the Swiss FA to allow Xhaka to train with the club in preparation fora UEFA Champions League play-off.

However, Xhaka became an integral part of Switzerland's successful 2014 World Cup qualifiers, playing in all ten qualifying matches. Xhaka scored in both meetings against Slovenia, and the home goal he scored on Oct. 15, 2013, proved vital.

While the 1-0 victory confirm Slovenia's elimination, results elsewhere meant Switzerland become a seeded nation for the 2014 World Cup draw for the first time, a tournament where Xhaka did score, but merely a consolation goal as France thumped Switzerland 5-2 in Salvador, Brazil.

Five days earlier, Switzerland did defeat Ecuador to open World Cup play. It came from Seferovic, and his 93rd-minute goal became Ecuador - the latest game-winning goal in a World Cup group stage match. This goal came just over a year after Seferovic scored a late goal to break a scoreless tie against Cyprus in a World Cup qualifier.

Since 2009, one thing is clear about Switzerland's achievement: its multicultural influences were significant in 2014, but that would not have been possible without the success of 2009. Switzerland's success is all about incorporating the influences that we have, no matter who people are, but rather who people play for that counts.

© 2014 Antonio Martinez

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