This month, EURO 2020 was set to kick off.
The summer showpiece would be well under way, but the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe hard, leading to the postponement of the tournament to 2021. If there is anything positive about the delay, it means that it will be 25 years since Switzerland’s first European Championship at EURO 96.
Switzerland earned a brilliant debut result, drawing against hosts England. Among the starting eleven was Ramon Vega, a defender at Swiss champions Grasshopper Club Zürich. For the man from Olten, a town with a population size a quarter of the Wembley attendance that afternoon, it was a moment to savour.
“Personally, it was a great experience,” Vega recalls. “I was really nervous, because it was the first game of the European Championship, but the day itself was just unbelievable. That big walk from the tunnel at the old Wembley, it takes quite long to get on to the pitch, and then you get this 80,000 people reception. This is the most beautiful memory I ever had as a player.”
Alan Shearer put England in front, before Kubilay Türkyilmaz’s late penalty drew the Swiss level and got a deserved point. However, Switzerland were beaten in their next two games, losing to the Netherlands and Scotland as they finished bottom of Group A.
“I think we could’ve done better to be honest with you in that tournament,” Vega admits. “If we won the England game, it might have gone in a different direction. We could’ve potentially done better, but at that time we were happy we qualified for the European Championship and to be participating.”
The summer of 1996 proved to be significant for Vega, leaving Grasshoppers weeks after the EUROs. After six years and three Super League titles with GC, he joined Serie A outfit Cagliari, yet only made 15 appearances.
The reason? Tottenham Hotspur came calling, and he moved to north London in January 1997.
Within nine months, Vega had played in the Swiss Super League, Serie A and the Premier League. It was a huge shift in playing style and opposition, with the challenge of playing against stars like Zinédine Zidane, David Beckham and Thierry Henry.
“Playing in Serie A in the 90s was without a doubt a proud moment for me as a defender, because the best players in the world were playing in that league,” he says. “I had the chance to go to a big club like Tottenham Hotspur. When you join the Premier League, that was completely different to what I had experienced in Italy. That was a great experience but a strange one to start with.”
Vega continued to play for Switzerland throughout his club career, earning 22 caps in one of the most exciting Nati setups for decades. As he explains, it was a true privilege to represent his country for eight years.
“It was a great honour. I think this is the ultimate of any professional player,” Vega tells me. “When you put that Nati shirt on, it’s a great honour to play for Switzerland, especially when you hear the hymn before the game.”
Vega lauds the quality of the Swiss national team of his time- and rightly so. In the 1990s, Switzerland soared to third in the FIFA world rankings, a squad featuring the likes of Stéphane Chapuisat, Ciriaco Sforza and Stéphane Henchoz. They qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years at USA 1994, before reaching their first European Championship two years later.
“We were one of the best [Swiss] national teams for more than 30 years,” he says. “The progress of Swiss football afterwards was enormous. There was a phase for the Swiss national team where we really grabbed Swiss people, in terms of being proud of your nation.”
Decades on, that team is still remembered fondly by Nati fans. Vega explains, “Even today, people talk about that era because, after 30 years, we qualified for a big tournament.” It’s a point clearly proven, with the majority of our conversation guided by that era of Swiss football.
The significance of that era and its enduring impact still resonates today, as Switzerland prepare for their fifth European Championship. Since EURO 96, the Swiss have reached three of the last four EUROs, four consecutive World Cups and the inaugural Nations League Finals- an incredible fruition.
Vega recognises how they shaped Swiss football, as we know it today.
“We promoted Swiss football internationally; I think that they’re benefitting today,” he says. “The Swiss Nati today is what we created, the fundamental side of it. They’re all quality players, the Swiss national team has had the privilege to have players like that. They’ve shown in the last few tournaments that they can compete with the best.”
“The Swiss Nati today is what we created. They’ve shown in the last few tournaments that they can compete with the best.”
Life after football can prove difficult, but Vega has made his name elsewhere: finance. It links back to his Grasshoppers days, and how they helped guide his future long before he retired in 2003.
“When I joined Grasshoppers at 16 years old, I was on the pilot programme to have an education and football together,” Vega tells me. “I really am obliged to Grasshoppers for putting the programme together- to join as a player, but also on a weekly basis, go to business school and have a banking and finance degree. It gave me enormous confidence.”
Vega has excelled since, working as a CEO in asset management after two decades in the industry. But how do you manage that switch, from playing in the best leagues in the world to having to start all over again with a completely different career?
“It’s the most difficult part- that transition. You have to start from scratch, get a new routine in place. That transition is very, very tough to take in- pretty much overnight, you’re nobody. There are certain people who still recognise you, but 90% of that goes away. So you go into a normality, that transition mentally is a very tough one to take in.”
The two industries seem so far apart: how can you compare kicking a ball around to entrepreneurship? But Vega shows that the bridge really doesn’t stretch that far.
“Today, [football] is a business. It’s run like a business; it has to be,” he says. “The football industry can actually bring quite a lot to the business industry, funnily enough. They underestimate the power of the discipline and routine sports professionals have, when you need to have that attribute in business.”
From playing for Switzerland to succeeding in a career in finance, it has been a remarkable career for Vega. Over 300 appearances across five leagues and a decade of representing the Schweizer Nati, followed by a successful transition into the financial world and progressing as a CEO. It is an exceptional journey, one that he is rightly proud of.
“I look back now and I’m not regretting it,” Vega concludes. “The first 2 or 3 years was tough; it wasn’t easy because you’re coming from one industry into a different industry. I was very lucky to go international and play a wonderful career: I can’t imagine having a better one.”
I would like to say a huge thank you to Ramon for agreeing to the interview, and for making the time to speak to me. I am truly grateful for the opportunity.