For once, Swiss expectations were not sky high.
Reaching the EURO 2020 knockout stages was the main goal, seeing what happened from there was an added incentive. Switzerland were back in the round of 16 for a fourth straight major tournament, but the task of dethroning world champions France was the biggest challenge they could have encountered.
When the night was young in Bucharest, many had predicted a routine French win. A clear passage into the quarter-finals for Les Bleus, too strong for the Swiss.
Not on Switzerland’s watch.
Optimism was scarce among Swiss fans, with a greater sentiment of pride whatever happened in Romania. Whatever would be would be, they said, knowing that they were facing the wrath of the mighty French.
Yet, with just 15 minutes on the clock, Switzerland could not have asked for a better start.
Haris Seferović, always under fire and sporadically on fire, opened the scoring with a commanding header deep into the bottom corner, converting for his second of the finals and Steven Zuber’s fourth assist – a new EURO record.
The Swiss were in control in the first half – how quickly football can change.
In four minutes of madness, Switzerland crumbled.
First, Ricardo Rodríguez had his penalty saved superbly by Hugo Lloris. Karim Benzema punished them moments later with a sumptuous control and finish to draw level, before heading the French in front straight afterwards. The Nati had gone from a potential two-goal lead to going behind – how cruel football can be.
It got worse for Vladimir Petković’s men: Paul Pogba, who had not scored an international goal since the 2018 World Cup final, decided it was time to strike again, curling it home with pinpoint precision.
Now 3-1 down with 10 minutes to go, you would be forgiven for raising the white flag to the defiant French. Even I saw Pogba’s goal to be the knockout blow, a valiant Swiss effort but not quite enough again.
But if Switzerland have taught me one thing about football, it is to never doubt them.
Seferović’s second header of the night appeared to be a mere consolation, until Granit Xhaka played a piercing pass through to Mario Gavranovic. Ice cold with just seconds left on the clock, he drove it hard and low into the bottom corner to complete the comeback and drag the game into extra time.
From 3-1 down to 3-3. Just in time – talk about Swiss punctuality.
Now, it was anyone’s game to win. It dragged on into the early Romanian morning and the full distance, penalties would settle this one.
Switzerland were knocked out of the last EUROs on penalties in the round of 16. They had lost all three shootouts in their history. The Nati had never beaten France in a competitive fixture, nor on any occasion in the 21st century.
Penalty after penalty found its way into the back of the net, some closer than others. With Admir Mehmedi making it five out of five for Switzerland, it fell to Kylian Mbappé.
Even the 32-year-old did not quite believe it. The pause before utter delirium tells the story.
After years of trying, failing and falling, Switzerland had reached the quarter-final of a major tournament.
The round of 16 curse has haunted Switzerland for decades, especially in recent years. Argentina, Poland and Sweden have all narrowly defeated the Swiss at this stage, and every time, it has been a case of being so close, yet so, so far.
The dream for Switzerland is to reach a quarter-final again. A sixty-seven year wait, stretching back to the 1954 World Cup, is always referenced and remembered – many Nati fans were not even alive when Karl Rappan’s men reached the final eight on home soil.
Time after time, Switzerland had failed to repeat the heroics of ’54. Would this golden generation ever do it? Where their predecessors had fallen and faltered, struggling to end a six decade-long wait? Would they ever do it?
Yes they would.
It is hard to put this night into words. Switzerland have made the nation proud, defying expectations and showing that this plucky Alpine nation can compete and can be one of the best on the continent.
On a personal note, I have been supporting Switzerland for well over a decade, and I have never seen my country reach the quarter-final. My dad has never seen it either. My late grandfather was just 19 when the Swiss last contested the quarter-finals – how proud he would be tonight.
It was a dream to see Switzerland make it to the quarter-finals, a dream I never knew if I would see come true. Many national team fans dream of winning a major honour – of course, I echo that vision – but reaching the Viertelfinal would suffice.
Tonight, that dream came true.
All those nights of heartbreak are behind us, all made this moment even sweeter. Ángel Di María’s last-minute winner for Argentina. Granit Xhaka’s missed penalty against Poland. Emil Forsberg’s deflected goal for Sweden. Each made the desire to fulfil this dream even greater, and tonight, Switzerland can say, “we did it”.
It could be another sixty-seven years before Switzerland reach another quarter-final. Who knows when this could happen again. But for now, the Nati can enjoy the moment and look ahead to a first quarter-final tie since 1954, and who better to face than Spain.
Eleven years ago, Switzerland stunned the Spanish in their opening game of the 2010 World Cup. Spain went on to win the tournament and the Swiss went home in the group stage, but that night in Durban lives long in the memory of every Nati fan.
Switzerland beat a far superior Spain team in 2010, but in 2021, this is a Spain team that the Schweizer Nati can certainly compete with.
Unbeaten in three of the last four meetings and preparing to face a transitioning La Roja, Switzerland have a chance. If they can beat France, heavily lauded as the favourites, why can they not compete with Spain?
Attention will quickly turn to the Spain clash on Friday, but not without forgetting the greatest night in Swiss football history. This Switzerland squad has etched its name into the history books, forever remembered as the Nati golden generation.
Six decades on, Switzerland are back in the quarter-final – finally.
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