sabato 31 dicembre 2011

Manchester United conquerors Basel highlight Switzerland's 2011

At first glance, 2011 looked every inch a negative year for Swiss football, as the national team failed to qualify for Euro 2012. Switzerland’s unsuccessful attempt to reach Poland and the Ukraine was mainly down to inconsistency; while Ottmar Hitzfeld’s men were able to halt England’s progress at Wembley with an impressive 2-2 draw, and then thrash Bulgaria 3-1 on home soil – thanks in large part to an outstanding hat-trick from rising star Xherdan Shaqiri – it was a different story when Wales beat the Swiss just days before the Nati were due to play a crucial qualifier against Montenegro.

The jury is still out on Hitzfeld’s reign, but intriguingly not on his charges, with a bright future predicted for the Alpine country’s national team. 2011 saw good news arrive from Switzerland’s Under-21 side, which shone at the European Championships in Denmark, reaching the final; eventually losing to Spain. Four wins from four games without conceding before facing La Roja was an impressive performance which also handed the Swiss a ticket to the 2012 London Olympics – it will be their first time at the games since 1928.

Some stars of that team (Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Fabian Frei, Yann Sommer and Admir Mehmedi) are currently staking a claim for a spot in the senior side’s starting eleven. Xhaka, was the first of the Swiss squad that lifted the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2009 to graduate to Hitzfeld’s group, although he has since been joined by Nassim Ben Khalifa and Ricardo Rodriguez.

2011 also saw Swiss club football reach its highest point on 7th December, when champions Basel beat Manchester United 2-1 to reach the last 16 of the Champions League. The St. Jakob Park side’s achievement is deeply rooted in the country’s football, with the team composed mostly of local players including the homemade Shaqiri, Sommer, Xhaka and Fabian Frei, with returning veterans Alexander Frei, Marco Streller and Benjamin Huggel.

At 32 years old, Alexander Frei is already certain of a spot amongst Switzerland’s top five players of all-time. Numbers do not lie: 42 goals out of 84 games with the national team, making him the country’s most prolific goal-getter; Ligue 1 top scorer in 2005; Swiss Super League top scorer in 2011 and leading the way in the current campaign; 26 goals in European competition, with five so far in this year’s Champions League.

If then it was not surprising to see Alexander Frei’s name on the scoresheet against Manchester United, it was very unusual for the almost unknown Heiko Vogel to become Basel’s miracle man. Not a household name even in his own home, Vogel started the 2011/12 season as Thorsten Fink’s assistant at St. Jakob Park. On 13th October, Fink, who had led Basel to the last two Swiss Super League titles, left for Hamburg and Vogel was appointed as caretaker boss. Despite an unimpressive coaching career – Vogel had worked with the youth teams at Bayern Munich and then served as Fink’s assistant at FC Inglostadt – the man charged with keeping the seat warm won eight of his first eleven games, with just one defeat against Benfica in the Champions League.

Basel ended the year topping the Super League, qualifying for the quarter-final of the Swiss Cup and knocking Manchester United out of the Champions League. It was little surprise then when Vogel was offered and accepted the job of head coach and manager on 12th December. Curiously however, Basel scored their European success just months after chairwoman Gisela Oeri, the wife of one of the heirs of the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche, announced she was leaving the club at the end of the season. Basel’s supporters hope that the Champions League feat could make the side’s main financial backer change her mind.

Before Basel, another Swiss side, FC Sion, enjoyed an impact on European football. After winning their 12th Swiss Cup, out of 12 finals played, the club owned by architect Christian Constantin, defeated Scottish giants Celtic in the Europa League playoff round. An outstanding performance was then annulled by UEFA, who excluded Sion from European competition for fielding ineligible players in the game. It was the start of a legal battle that is still running and has recently seen the Swiss FA, ordered by UEFA to punish Sion or risk
exclusion from international competition, hand Constantin’s side a 36-point deduction. Sion will fight on and have filed a criminal complaint against members of FIFA’s executive committee.

Despite this saga however, on the pitch Sion have shown they are the rising force of Swiss football and the club were sitting second until the 36-point penalty was handed out. The legal battles look set to run and run and fans will hope they do not overshadow a promising team.

Last but not least, 2011 also saw Hakan Yakin’s final act in the Super League. After two and a half years at Luzern, one of the finest ever creative midfielders in the history of Swiss football left for second division outfit Bellinzona. Yakin’s final statistics were 254 games and 141 goals in the country’s top flight. The standing ovation the midfielder received when he left the pitch at St. Jakob Park, from fans of his former club Basel, was a telling indicator of his standing. Yakin makes way for the new generation with only Alexander Frei sitting a step above him.

Fonte: Inside Futbol

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