Switzerland's success in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship has delighted one Englishman.
The achievements of the host nation at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship have brought excitement and rare success to Switzerland this week - and given quiet satisfaction to an Englishman who deserves some of the credit for the progress that has been made by a country who are not regular visitors to the final stages of major tournaments.
When Switzerland returned from the 1994 FIFA World Cup finals, national coach Roy Hodgson decided they had to seize on the interest engendered by their appearance in the United States and turn it to their advantage. His plan was to introduce a system of regional coaches employed by the national federation to work with the nation's best young players and complement the tuition they were receiving at club level.
"Switzerland had always done quite well at U16 and U17 level but somewhere along the line we seemed to lose them before they got to U21," Hodgson said. "As a small country we could not afford to lose a single player. We weren't like England or Italy with loads of players available and we particularly targeted the 19 to 21-year-olds who seemed to slipping through the net."
The fruits of that initiative are being revealed again in Basel and Zürich as the team moulded by coach Bernard Challandes have fought their way to the semi-finals of this event for the first time, defeating a talented Portuguese side before drawing 0-0 with holders and four-time winners Italy to assure Switzerland of second place in a group which also contained England.
Tomorrow in the Saint Jakob stadium the Swiss take on a France team who have emerged as the side to fear. It is an immense test for Challendes and his team, but were they were to bow out now it would still register as another important milestone in their international development, a month after Switzerland won the UEFA European Under-17 Championship.
Hodgson has been in Switzerland as one of two technical observers working for UEFA and has been impressed by what he has seen from the hosts. "The coach has done fantastically well to instil a good team spirit in these boys and as a result the Swiss are probably the most cohesive of the teams here and the most disciplined in terms of their tactical work," he said.
Swiss "very organised"
"They are working hard for each other and are very organised, especially in defence. All teams are organised for some period of the 90 minutes but if you can keep it up game by game you are going to get results and compete well against teams who are really better than you both in terms of experience and technical ability.
Praise for Cabanas
"[Grasshopper-Club's] Ricardo Cabanas's contribution to the team play has been outstanding and he has shown a very good understanding with the players around him. His passing has been decisive and he is also important when the team has to defend. I like the defender Stephan Keller who had just been shown the door by Grasshoppers when I arrived there in 1999 and the right-back, Remo Meyer also looks like he could have a decent career," Hodgson added.
Backing for players
Challandes was one of the five full-time regional coaches, appointed by the Swiss FA along with a full-time technical director, as part of the Hodgson masterplan. The strategy, backed up by sponsorship from Credit Suisse, was to identify those players who could go on to play at a higher level, including those with lower division sides, and, with the agreement of the clubs, lay on specialised coaching sessions for them
"Whenever I have seen a Swiss team in action since I left it is clear they are still receiving the same tuition and the football they are trying to play remains the same," said the Londoner who is preparing to start a new job as United Arab Emirates national coach next month. "Sweden have prospered from good coaching all through the age groups and Switzerland is promising to do the same.
"What is happening here is great for Switzerland. The competition has been organised with real Swiss class and their success on the field could not better timed with a World Cup about to kick off and interest in the game so high. As a result more youngsters will take up the game but the upswing will be short-lived unless they can continue to build on this success."