When Switzerland first qualified for the European Championship 25 years ago, who would have thought they would one day be established regulars.
In 1996, reaching the EUROs was a mere dream for the Schweizer Nati, fulfilled by the golden generation of the nineties. Today, it is a formality, as they prepare for their fifth appearance at Europe’s top dining table.
Coincidentally, Switzerland once again find themselves placed in Group A, as was the case at their debut tournament. Vladimir Petković’s side face Wales, Italy and Turkey, beginning with the Welsh in Baku in what is a challenging group.
Group F retains the label of the ‘Group of Death’ but the Nati’s group poses serious threat.
Even with Italy as the favourites to win Group A – and the whole competition, as per some – there is stern competition amongst the rest of the field, a fierce battle to join the Azzurri in the knockout stages. The possibility of progressing as one of the best third-place teams is there, but with no guarantee, the fight for second is well and truly on.
No game is easy in a major tournament, but Switzerland’s meeting with Wales is their most winnable game of the group stage. Winning the opening game puts them in the best position possible, losing it makes the mountain even steeper to climb.
Switzerland go into Saturday’s opener in superb form, currently on a run of six straight wins across all competitions. From edging past Finland to thumping Liechtenstein, the Nati have looked promising since their underwhelming Nations League campaign.
The Nati are growing in confidence with their back three system, far from perfect but starting to show its benefits under Petković’s guidance. Ricardo Rodríguez and Kevin Mbabu are excelling as wing-backs, while Xherdan Shaqiri is truly flourishing with the freedom in the number 10 role.
It will be fascinating to see how Switzerland’s back three combats Wales’ back five, before facing more orthodox defensive shapes in their remaining two group games.
How will the two sets of wing-backs fare against each other? Which defensive line will prevail against the other? Who will manage to break down whose defence? It is a tactical battle which could prove decisive in changing the tide of Group A, while showing who has perfected their respective formations overtime.
Saturday is more than Switzerland’s first game of the tournament – it is a renewed chance to show Europe what they are capable of.
For all of the Nati’s success and achievements on the biggest stage, shortcomings have begun to define what could have been for this new Swiss golden generation. Not since 1954 have Switzerland reached the quarter-final of any competition, falling at the round of 16 on five occasions since.
Five years ago, Switzerland recorded their best EUROs campaign yet by reaching the round of 16 at EURO 2016. A monumental achievement for the Nati to reach the knockout stages for the first time, emerging from the group unbeaten and conceding just once.
But what is painful is that the journey could have continued.
A penalty shootout against a beatable Poland side ended in defeat, with Granit Xhaka’s missed penalty all that stood between the Swiss and the final eight. So close, yet so far. The pain from Saint-Étienne remains vivid, going from pandemonium with Shaqiri’s stunning bicycle kick, to heartbreak from Grzegorz Krychowiak’s winning spot kick.
Five years on, Switzerland finally have the chance for redemption. The opportunity to go one step further, reach the quarter-finals and make history for a small Alpine nation.
Switzerland have the potential to compete with Europe’s best, capable of beating anyone on their day. The talent, tactics and quality are all there, but they need that winning mentality and correct frame of mind to get over the line.
When Xhaka leads the Nati out in Azerbaijan, it will be the culmination of a long, arduous qualifying campaign and an extended wait to play on the European stage.
It will be the product of the boys of ’96, a team who set the standard so high for a country once more renowned for its success on the ski slopes than on the pitch.
The time has finally arrived for Switzerland. EURO 2020 is upon us, and the Schweizer Nati are here to make a statement.
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