The road to Brazil and the 2014 FIFA World Cup begins in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana for Switzerland and Ottmar Hitzfeld does not need reminding how important it is to start on the right note.
The Swiss national team – nicknamed Nati – have never reached the finals of a major tournament after losing their opening qualifier and Friday's opponents Slovenia, who surprisingly qualified for South Africa two summers ago, represent a significant threat in Group E. "Slovenia were drawn out of pot two," said Hitzfeld. "They are a very strong footballing side and can shift the play quickly. It's a difficult task but we are aiming for all three points."
An air of confidence surrounds the Swiss camp following their 4-2 friendly win against Croatia in Split last month. It is an assuredness born from the fact that for the first time in a while they have an established starting XI – Hitzfeld has put his stamp on the team. Valon Behrami and Gökhan Inler provide cover for a solid back five, while going forward there is a distinctively German cadence: Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Tranquillo Barnetta and striker Eren Derdiyok all play in the Bundesliga. "We have a lot of quality in attack," said the 63-year-old German coach.
To many observers, Switzerland have a lot of quality throughout their squad and there is a real sense of anticipation in the country as people plan their summer holidays for 2014 – despite the side's failure to get to UEFA EURO 2012. "People call me over and say: 'We want to be in Brazil, you have to make it happen,'" Hitzfeld said. "We simply must fulfil the dream of thousands of Swiss football fans.
"Our goal is to win the group. We want to qualify directly and we have the confidence to do so." Hitzfeld would not be Hitzfeld if he did not add the caveat that "it will be tough". Just how tough – from a group also containing Norway, Iceland, Cyprus and Albania – may become clearer in Ljubljana on Friday, but with Switzerland having beaten Germany and then Croatia in recent months hopes are high.
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