Swiss punch above their weight

Switzerland's contribution to the game has belied the small size of the Alpine nation.

The Swiss team celebrate a goal in UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying
The Swiss team celebrate a goal in UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying ©AFP/Getty Images

Switzerland is a fine example of a small country that has made the very best of its resources. Swiss football has emerged with a flourish and recent positive results attest to the hard work undertaken at all levels of the game.

The Swiss Football Association (Schweizerischer Fussballverband/Association Suisse de Football or SFV-ASF) is one of the biggest and most popular sporting associations in multilingual Switzerland, defending the interests of Swiss football nationally and internationally in the political, economic and social arenas.

The SFV-ASF, a financially independent body that does not require public funding, promotes both grassroots and elite football while attaching particular importance to the youth element. It can look back with legitimate pride on more than 100 years of history – a fluctuating timeline perhaps, but one showing more highs than lows on the pitch, especially in recent years. Indeed, a major peak was attained when Switzerland won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria in November 2009.

Qualification for the 1994 FIFA World Cup after a 28-year absence from the global showpiece, followed by the country's first participation at the UEFA European Championship – in England two years later – indicated the progress being made at senior level. These foundations were built on as the national team qualified successfully for UEFA EURO 2004 in Portugal and the 2006 World Cup in Germany under coach Jakob Kuhn, and later for the 2010 and 2014 global finals with Ottmar Hitzfeld at the helm. In between times, the Swiss had co-hosted, together with Austria, UEFA EURO 2008.

In youth football too, great strides have been made. After seeing representative sides qualify for final tournaments at various age groups, the SFV-ASF could finally celebrate a victory proper in 2002: Switzerland caused a stir by winning that summer's UEFA European Under-17 Championship in Denmark. They threatened to repeat the feat by getting to the semi-finals of the same competition in May 2009, an achievement that earned the country's ticket to the U-17 World Cup later in the year. There, in Nigeria, Switzerland overcame Brazil in their concluding group game, then Germany, Italy, Colombia and Nigeria to become world champions.

Such positive results must also include the U21 squad's expedition to the UEFA European Championship semi-finals in 2002 on home soil, and then to the final in Denmark nine years later, which Switzerland lost 2-0 to Spain. All these exploits betray a great commitment to youth development.

A number of Swiss clubs have caught the eye in European competition too. BSC Young Boys from the Swiss federal capital Berne were the first to impress, advancing to the semi-finals of the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1959. FC Zürich subseqently matched that performance on two occasions. FC Basel 1893, meanwhile, have been a towering monument to Swiss football down the years, progressing as far as the UEFA Champions League second group stage in 2002/03 and then journeying to the semi-finals of the 2012/13 UEFA Europa League, where they succumbed over two legs to Chelsea FC, the eventual winners. Grasshopper Club Zürich, BSC Young Boys and Servette FC are other world-renowned teams produced by this Alpine nation.

Organised football in Switzerland has undergone a tremendous expansion, and today more than 240,000 players are active across 1,500-plus local associations. Under the aegis of the SFV-AFS, the game is played by over 12,800 sides. If, for the vast majority, the sport is merely a hobby, for a small number of elite players football is beyond a question of goals, points and keeping physically fit; it represents an opportunity to pursue international victories, fame and wealth.

The SFV-AFS has performed a weighty role in the football story. UEFA (Nyon) and FIFA (Zurich) also have their headquarters in Switzerland, and not only was UEFA founded in the country in 1954, but the then SFV-AFS president Gustav Wiederkehr made a significant contribution to the consolidation and growth of the fledgling institution, serving as UEFA President between 1962 and 1972.