For years, Switzerland have had a wealth of goalkeepers.
Diego Benaglio has earned the most caps, though Yann Sommer will surely overtake him soon. Marco Pascolo was the Nati’s number one at their first European Championship in 1996, as well as at the World Cup two years earlier.
Yet none of them boast the same feat as Pascal Zuberbühler, who made history at the 2006 World Cup, not conceding a single goal in 400 minutes of action. It is a remarkable achievement lauded to this day, though he is quick to emphasise that it was not done alone.
“It was brilliant to be there, but you have to know we didn’t concede any goals and we worked very hard not to concede any goals,” Zuberbühler tells me. “It’s a world record, but I didn’t win anything! I didn’t have any trophy!” he laughs. Nonetheless, it does not undermine Zuberbühler’s accomplishment.
Switzerland had a tremendous tournament in Germany, before losing on penalties to Ukraine in the round of 16. To not concede any goals is an unbelievable record that still stands today, but to understand where it all began, you have to go back to a bittersweet night in Istanbul.
The Swiss faced Turkey in the World Cup play-offs in 2005, winning the first leg 2-0. Although they qualified on away goals, the second leg was marred by a series of ugly incidents. Fights broke out in the tunnel, opposing players kicked each other and Swiss defender Stéphane Grichting had to be taken to hospital.
“We had a very crucial moment when we had to play against Turkey in the play-offs,” Zuberbühler recalls. “That was not a nice memory, what happened there in the away game, but we became even stronger together and started this beautiful World Cup and didn’t concede any goals.”
Zuberbühler was playing for FC Basel at the time, where he won three Super Leagues and two Swiss Cups. His World Cup heroics caught the eye of West Bromwich Albion, and he decided to leave for pastures new in July 2006. While he made just seventeen appearances for the Baggies, it was a move which meant a lot to him.
“When I was a little boy, I was always a big fan of England; I loved this country,” he says. “When I started to play in the 90s, it was a problem because I only had a Swiss passport, and you had no chance to go and sign a contract in a Premier League club. I had handcuffs on to make an earlier move to England.”
He adds, “I had this possibility after the World Cup with West Bromwich Albion, and that was brilliant. It was fantastic to be there with Bryan Robson, who signed me. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen how I wanted.” The goalkeeper left the Hawthorns after seven months, returning to Switzerland to join Neuchâtel Xamax.
Zuberbühler earned 51 caps for Switzerland, in an international career spanning fourteen years. Yet 88% of his appearances came in the last eight years, struggling to cement his spot early on. Despite the initial hardships of remaining number one, he was determined to fight for his place.
“I had already been in the national team squad for a long time,” Zuberbühler explains. “But for me, it was clear that I want to keep going until I have my chance to play at a tournament. Every time I put this shirt on for the Swiss national team, that was always a very special moment for me, and I was always very proud to play for my national team.”
The goalkeeper played under five different Switzerland managers, but none were more special than Jakob ‘Köbi’ Kuhn. He played half of his Nati career under Kuhn, during a wonderful seven years at the helm.
Kuhn passed away on 26th November 2019, aged 76. Zuberbühler had a special relationship with Köbi, remembering him fondly.
“Köbi Kuhn was really unique,” Zuberbühler tells me. “What he did and how his philosophy was to treat his squad was very special. Köbi Kuhn had this feeling to ask players, ‘Welcome, you are here now, let’s have a nice time together. But on the training field and for the games, you have to be ready- 100%.’ What Köbi did was really unique. We believed in him- he gave us something, we gave [it] back.”
Zuberbühler and Kuhn retired together from Switzerland, following EURO 2008. The goalkeeper earned his 51st and final cap, in a 2-0 win over Portugal. A win and a clean sheet on home soil was the perfect ending, but the feelings were mixed.
“It was special, it was clear for me after the EUROs I will stop my career,” he says. “It was a nice game to play in, but I wasn’t very happy about this tournament. We didn’t play well in the EUROs, the expectation from the fans was massive. I still had in my stomach why we didn’t play better. It was not the same, not the same spirit or drive as we had in the 2006 World Cup.”
At the end of EURO 2008, Switzerland were ranked 45th in the world. They now sit 12th in the world rankings, ahead of Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. Although the Nati have reached marvellous new levels, Zuberbühler believes changes are needed.
“We are playing fantastic football, we are able to beat everybody, but for this, we need to be together.”
“The Swiss national team squad is really fantastic,” Zuberbühler exclaims, “but in tournaments – it’s clear from the last World Cup in Russia – this was exactly not the Swiss team everybody was expecting. In a tournament, you have to be ready. This is the big problem for the Swiss national team: we are playing fantastic football, we are able to beat everybody, but for this, we need to be together.”
Having retired in 2011, Zuberbühler is now a goalkeeper specialist for FIFA. “It’s fantastic to work for FIFA, and I’m really the proudest person to work for them,” he says. “The goalkeeping situation around the world is changing massively. In football, the goalkeeper is such an important person in the team. 20 years ago, you had to save balls and that’s it, [now] the goalkeeper has to know about everything.”
After a wonderful career, winning nine trophies and half a century of caps for his country, the goal now is to assist the development of goalkeepers worldwide. It goes without saying that Zuberbühler is extremely proud to be involved.
“Goalkeeping is now my work, to bring this around the world,” Zuberbühler explains. “To give every single goalkeeper talent around the world the possibility to grow, to get fantastic training, to have great facilities. The new project now for FIFA and for me is to develop the goalkeeper into every single talent, to give them the chance.”
I would like to say a huge thank you to Pascal for agreeing to the interview, and for making the time to speak to me. I am very grateful for the opportunity.