Switzerland start feeling the love for Vladimir Petkovic – The Guardian
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Switzerland had rarely seen such scenes. After the epic victory against France on Monday – the country’s first win in a knockout match at a major finals since 1954 – supporters bounced into the streets of cities and villages, beeping horns and detonating fireworks into the early hours. The St Galler Tagblatt conveyed the magnitude of the feat through the front-page headline: “We are Asterix!”
Indomitable underdogs is not how the Swiss saw themselves before the victory. Chronic bottlers would have been closer to the mark. In the German-speaking part of the country, the average TV viewing figures for the game were nearly 200,000 lower than for the final group game against Turkey, and many faithless fans switched off as soon as Paul Pogba put France 3-1 up.
But there has never been a lot of love in the German-speaking regions for the manager, Vladimir Petkovic. From his appointment in 2014 he was derided as a serious downgrade on his predecessor, Ottmar Hitzfeld, who gained the job on the back of winning the Champions League and multiple German titles with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Petkovic’s most memorable achievement at club level came in 2010, when his Young Boys teams blew a 13-point lead to finish second in the Swiss league.
That impression persisted despite Petkovic achieving better results than Hitzfeld and reaching three tournaments in a row.
Petkovic has not been particularly popular in French-speaking Switzerland either, owing to his undiplomatic reluctance to speak that language even though he understands it well.
Now, however, the country is united in their gratitude to Petkovic, who, according to the newspaper Blick, “has stood like an oak in the wind” as criticism and controversies swirled around him. The win over France – and the manner of it – have been hailed as the culmination of his patient work. Whereas Hitzfeld’s greatest exploit with Switzerland was a backs-to-the-wall victory against Spain at the 2010 World Cup, even though they failed to qualify from the group, Petkovic’s team outplayed the world champions.
If a mostly unloved manager is now being embraced, the same goes for many of his players. Even during this tournament there has been grumbling about their attitudes. Some of that came with sinister undertones – the sort first emitted a decade or so ago when the team began to feature more players with immigrant backgrounds and flared up again after the 2018 World Cup after Xherdan Shaqiri’s and Granit Xhaka’s double-headed eagle celebration against Serbia, when the secretary-general of the Swiss FA floated the idea of banning players with dual nationality.
Switzerland will be without the suspended Granit Xhaka for their quarter-final against Spain. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA
After the first match of this tournament some right-wing politicians complained about players – including Xhaka, now the captain – for not singing the national anthem.
“[The people celebrating after the win over France] take football for what is best about it,” said an editorial in Le Temps. “A week earlier others, here or elsewhere, had tried to hijack it for the worst reasons. Division and exclusion. Happily, hackneyed agendas about the cars or hairstyles of players who, as if by coincidence, have foreign backgrounds did not last long, partly because those players, being used to insidious controversies, were able to give their answer on the pitch.”
No one expressed himself against France better than Xhaka. Before the tournament he was accused, not for the first time, of being big-headed for saying he had packed his bags to last until after the final. Now he is praised for his ambition and for believing, as one of three players in the squad who won the Under-17 World Cup in 2009 and one of five who finished runners-up at the Under-21 European Championship two years later, that this generation could still prove itself at senior level.
The question now is can they cope without him? He is suspended for the quarter-final against Spain. “I know the boys can get the job done and earn a semi-final near my home in London,” said the Arsenal man, while others try not to think too much about the match against Denmark in the qualifiers, when Switzerland were 3-0 up until Xhaka went off in the 79th minute and ended up drawing 3-3.
Denis Zakaria of Borussia Mönchengladbach is the favourite to replace Xhaka. He will have to get up to speed quickly to fill in for a player who ran more than 14km against France, had the most touches, created the most chances and provided the emotional power to rouse his team to a historic comeback.
“[Zakaria] showed how fit he is by practically attacking Yann Sommer during the celebrations after the penalty shootout so clearly he should get the nod,” said Blick, reflecting a sudden new spirit of putting positive interpretations on things relating to the team.
Not that the Swiss need to contrive grounds for optimism. Remo Freuler has been as dynamic as Xhaka in midfield; Nico Elvedi and Manuel Akanji were outstanding in defence against France; Steven Zuber’s raids down the left are a danger Spain will struggle to stifle; Breel Embolo and Haris Seferovic attack with the directnessPetkovic demands and the sense of a team finally learning to go the extra yard is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that Shaqiri, not the most enthusiastic defender, covered almost as much ground as France’s N’Golo Kanté.
Three years ago, after a bright group stage, Switzerland’s World Cup campaign ended with a meek loss in the last 16 to Sweden in St Petersburg. On Friday they return to that city intent on proving they have come of age.