Soccer-Switzerland seek to break barriers at Euro 2020

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - International Friendly - Switzerland v Croatia - Kybunpark, St Gallen, Switzerland - October 7, 2020 Switzerland players pose for a team group photo before the match KEYSTONE-Salvatore Di Nolfip/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

(Reuters) - Switzerland are seeking to break through new barriers at the European Championship, having become a consistent presence at major tournaments but still without having any major impact.

This is their fifth appearance at the last seven Euro tournaments, since their belated finals debut in 1996, but the Swiss have chalked up only two victories and have never won a game in the knockout stages.

Switzerland have also been at the last four World Cups, reaping the rewards of putting a lot of effort into developing the national teams after deciding their clubs were too weak economically to make an impact beyond their borders.

Significant investment in youth structures and a clear training policy have allowed the Swiss to compensate for a limited pool of talented players.

Qualifying for the inaugural Nations League finals in 2019, by beating top ranked Belgium 5-2 along the way, offered a glimpse of their potential.

They topped their Euro 2020 qualifying group with one defeat in eight games, losing to a late goal against Denmark in Copenhagen. They have also made a winning start to 2022 World Cup qualification with two victories in March.

But appearances at recent major tournaments have seen them hit a hidden ceiling, explaining coach Vladimir Petkovic’s reluctance to set potentially burdensome expectations.

“I read and hear that each of the teams in our group has big ambitions. Italy will play their matches at home. Turkey will be in Azerbaijan, which is almost like home for them. So it will be hard. Qualifying for the round of 16 would already be a good result. And then we'll see,” he told reporters this month.

Switzerland are in Group A and begin their campaign against Wales in Baku on June 12 before travelling to Rome to meet Italy four days later and then make a long journey back to Azerbaijan for their third group game against the Turks on June 20.

But Petkovic, who has been in the job for the last seven years, said he was hoping for an improvement on Euro 2016, where they lost in the first knockout round on penalties to Poland, as well as the last World Cup in Russia, where the Swiss again advanced from the group stage only to lose 1-0 to Sweden.

“I hope it will be better, but we'll see on the pitch, everything else is just theory. We know we are not the best team in Europe. But we also know that surprises are always possible at a big tournament.”

Switzerland’s playing personnel reflects the country’s large migrant population, estimated at 20% of the population.

Players with roots in the Balkans, like Haris Seferovic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, make up the backbone of a multicultural team, while key attackers Breel Embolo and Denis Zakaria are of African origin.

“There is a hierarchy in place,” said the coach of his selection, “but things can change.”

(Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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