The odds were against Switzerland, but when have they not been?
Going into their final World Cup qualifier neck-and-neck with Italy, Group C went down to the final day. Italy travelled to Northern Ireland and knew they had the upper hand, already sitting in pole position and knowing a win would do it.
The Schweizer Nati not only needed to beat Bulgaria on Monday, but depended on the Northern Irish to hold Italy and prevent them from winning. The two may not be the best of friends (see 2017) but everyone in Switzerland was an honorary member of the Green and White Army for one night.
It had been a stellar qualifying campaign for the Swiss, who remained unbeaten going into the World Cup qualification finale. But nobody was to take that for granted: that was the case four years ago, and they ended up needing a play-off to reach Russia.
The atmosphere at the Swissporarena was tense, but history could be made.
With Italy kicking off simultaneously at Windsor Park, it was like watching the same game of football. Switzerland and Italy were dominating the game, controlling possession yet creating far and few chances. Whenever they did find themselves in scoring spots, the pressure was too much and caused tame efforts at the final hurdle.
Switzerland, without a dozen injured and suspended players, were feeling the pressure as chances went begging. Noah Okafor thought he had broken the deadlock at last, but a stunning save from Bulgaria goalkeeper Ivan Karadzhov somehow kept it at 0-0.
Goalless at the break in Luzern and Belfast, something had to give. Enter Xherdan Shaqiri.
Regardless of the result, it was to be a momentous day for Shaqiri. Captaining the country in Granit Xhaka’s absence, Shaqiri earned his 100th cap to become just the fifth man to join the Switzerland centenary club. A decent first half but a frustrating one nonetheless for the 30-year-old, but you could tell something was brewing.
Three minutes after the restart, Shaqiri collected the ball on the edge of the box, surrounded by Bulgarian defenders and with just a small pocket of space. Some vintage Shaqiri footwork, skill and finesse, capped off with an inch-perfect cross.
On hand was Okafor, denied his first goal earlier on in his first home start. He was not going to be denied again, heading home unmarked to send Switzerland into raptures. A first goal for the youngster and a wonderful moment too, one that put the Nati in the driving seat for qualification.
Switzerland had the pressure off their backs and the confidence in their veins: from that moment on, there was no stopping them.
Ruben Vargas was next, marking his return to the Swissporarena with an emphatic finish fired past Karadzhov. Credit must go to Mario Gavranović for his perfectly weighted pass into the feet of Vargas, as the Swiss seized control of the game. Switzerland were scoring for fun with no reply from Bulgaria – or Italy, who were still all square.
Murat Yakin’s men were hungry for more, but VAR said otherwise. First, Gavranović was denied a fantastic goal for offside, then his replacement Cedric Itten was flagged offside with his first touch putting the ball into the net.
But Switzerland would not be deterred, and Itten did get his goal with a typically commanding header to all but seal their top spot.
Italy now had to score twice to snatch it back. On a normal day that would be no problem, but in an abject display even with 15 minutes to go, the Azzurri looked doomed.
Remo Freuler added a fourth in stoppage time just to make sure, and after the final whistle at Windsor Park and the longest eight minutes of stoppage time ever in Luzern, referee Benoît Bastien blew his whistle.
Against all odds, Switzerland had done it.
The scenes of celebration were not just for the three points. They were for the defeat of the European champions, the fall of the mighty Italians at the hands of the plucky Swiss.
They were for the small nation who had just qualified for a fifth consecutive World Cup, the first time they have ever done that in their history.
They were for the significance of what this Switzerland team has achieved this year, and just what it means to be a Schweizer Nati fan.
Switzerland have got used to winning their World Cup qualifying group – this is the third time in their last four campaigns – but this one is the sweetest of them all. Not only have the Nati won the group and secured automatic qualification, but they have done so ahead of the best team in Europe.
Yakin has done a stellar job since taking over the reins from Vladimir Petković, still unbeaten as Switzerland manager and deservedly earning an automatic contract extension until 2024. Many doubted him when he got the job, but a little bit of trust and faith is all that is needed.
Switzerland are constantly written off, undermined, criticised. Questioned as to how they are so high in the world rankings, underestimated in major tournaments, slammed for their players “not even being Swiss”.
Now, it is time to put some respect on Switzerland’s name.
European Championship quarter-finalists, outqualifying European champions Italy and on their way to a fifth consecutive World Cup. Switzerland are one of the best teams in Europe and have earned their spot at the top table over the last few decades. The Nati deserve respect and recognition for what they have achieved, and nothing less.
2021 has been one of the greatest years in Switzerland’s history and possibly the greatest ever. This is the greatest Switzerland team ever and it could even get better, what with the exciting young talent on its way. For the Xherdan Shaqiri’s and Yann Sommer’s of this generation, we have the likes of Gregor Kobel, Ruben Vargas and Noah Okafor on their way.
The focus now turns to 2022 and the World Cup as preparations begin for Qatar. Switzerland will go into the tournament with confidence, maybe even aiming to follow up their first EURO quarter-final with a first World Cup quarter-final since 1954.
Switzerland sign out of 2021 in style, proving once again why they are a serious force to reckon with. The red flag flies high above the alps, and it will be flying high in Qatar.
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