Group A: Switzerland

1. Juni 2016, 18:05
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Vladimir Petkovic wants his team to be qualified for the knock out stage already after the first two games of the group stage against Albania and Romania. Last 16, why not?

Main player profile: Valon Behrami

By Max Kern
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foto: reuters/kilcoyne
Valon Behrami

In Switzerland we call Valon Behrami ‘the Warrior’, and with good reason. He never gives up. Never. There is no better description of what kind of a player (and person) Behrami is than the 93th minute of Switzerland’s World Cup group stage game in 2014 against Ecuador. The score is 1-1 as Behrami blocks a shot in his own penalty area, throwing himself at the ball like an ice hockey player. He blocks the shot, collects the ball and runs away – only to be chopped down. Most player would have been rolling around and feeling sorry for themselves. Not Behrami. He does not even stop as he goes in search of a winner, starting the move by playing the ball to Ricardo Rodriguez (who continues the move that ends with Haris Seferovic scoring at the near post). 1-2 becomes 2-1 in 30 seconds, all because of Behrami. No wonder Vladimir Petkovic has made him the Swiss captain.

"If my style of play didn’t hurt I would be doing something wrong," Behrami told me the day after the game. "Injuries are a part of me," he says before adding: "My body will be broken when my career ends."

Behrami is born on the 19 April in 1990 in Titova Mitrovica in the former Yugoslavia. His star sign? Aries – which comes as no surprise. They are known for being hell-bent on getting their own way.

His family (originally from Kosovo) fled from the Yugoslavian war to Switzerland in 1990. His father Ragip, his mother Halime und their five-year- old son Valon find shelter in the canton of Tessin in the southern part of Switzerland near the Italian border. There they lived for five years before the Swiss authorities decide that the Behrami family will have to leave the country. They are devastated and the local community outraged. Luckily, the cross country club where the 10-year-old Valon is a member start, Ligormetto, start a petition and 2,000 signatures are quickly collected. It turns out to be enough – the Behrami family can stay and become Swiss citizens two years later.

Behrami, however, is still very proud of his Kosovan heritage. He has a tattoo of the Kosovan eagle on his right calf. The flags of Kosovo and Switzerland are on his left arm. "I’m proud to wear the colours of Switzerland," he said once. "I am able to fight for a country that has given so much to my family." And therefore, playing for Kosovo has never been an option for Behrami. Not back then and not now, even after Kosovo became a member of Fifa and will play in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers (players who have represented other countries’ senior team can still play for Kosovo).

On the subject, Behrami said before the World Cup qualifier against Albania: "I have decided to play football for one country, and I will always play for the Swiss national team." Asked if he would celebrate a goal against Albania, he replied: "Celebrating a goal is part of the game. When I score a goal I want to celebrate. I want football to be fun."

It feels like Behrami has always been on the move. At the age of 18 and after only a season with Lugano in the second division, he moved to Genoa. He excelled there and has since played for Verona, Lazio, West Ham, Fiorentina, Napoli, Hamburg and now Watford during a distinguished career.

In October 2005 – 11 years ago – he played his first game for the national team, getting on the pitch late in the World Cup qualifier against France. Three weeks later, in the play-offs against Turkey, he came on in the 83rd minute and scored the crucial goal that took Switzerland to the World Cup despite the controversial 4-2 defeat in the second leg in Istanbul.

The European Championship in France will be his fifth tournament (after 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2014) and with that he breaks the record of Tranquillo Barnetta (now plays for Philadelphia Union) who went to four. It has not always been plain sailing for Behrami in the national team, however, and his lowest moment came in the second group game of the 2010 World Cup when he was sent off for an (admittedly rather soft) elbow on a Chile player after 32 minutes. Switzerland only managed to get a point in that game after playing with 10 men for almost an hour and had to go home after the group stage, despite beating eventual winners Spain in the first game.

Behrami missed the victory against Spain – one of the country’s most successful moments ever – because of an injury. That did not come as a surprise. In a way, it is more of a surprise that he is still playing at the highest level. He has had two groin surgeries, in 2006 and 2008, he tore his cruciate ligament in 2009, suffered another knee injury two years later and a broken metatarsal in 2014. And those are only his worst injuries. For the past two years he has been struggling with the cartilage in his knee. For most professionals that would be the end but Behrami struggles on, often limping after training sessions with an ice pack around his knee.

He has a stunning house in Gentilino, above Lugano Paradiso, overlooking the lake and the local mountains Monte Bré and Monte San Salvatore. His wife, Elena, is even credited with making him a better man. "Elena has had a big influence on me," he told Blick in May 2016. "She showed me that my rebellious and sometimes moody attitude was wrong. She has tamed the rebel in me. I am very lucky to have her by my side." Switzerland can benefit from Elena’s influence as well. With Behrami calmer – and now the captain – he is unlikely to get sent off in the way he was against Chile and ruin one of three group games for his country.

Tactics and key questions

By Max Kern
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foto: epa/kefalas
Goekhan Inler, Blerim Dzemaili, Fabian Lustenberger, Francois Moubandje, and Xherdan Shaqiri; (back row, L-R) Granit Xhaka, Johan Djourou, Michael Lang, Eren Derdiyok, goalkeeper Marwin Hitz, and Admir Mehmedi

The national coach, Vladimir Petkovic, loves a three-man defence and used it to great effect in a 3-4-3 system when he was at Young Boys ((2008 until 2011). However, with the national team has has relied on a back four with two or three defensive midfielders in front of it. That results in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.

His captain, Gökhan Inler, has lost his place since his move to Leicester City, where he has not played much, and the midfield cards have been reshuffled. The biggest winner has been Arsenal’s new signing, Granit Xhaka who, while having played for the national team for several years, now has Inler’s central role. Xhaka has had a tremendous season at Borussia Mönchengladbach and will, injuries permitting, be backed up by a workhorse in Valon Behrami on his right. If Petkovic decides to play three "defensive" midfielders then Xhaka will have Blerim Dzemaili on the left meaning that the Swiss will line up with two warriors to back up Xhaka as the playmaker.

Mönchengladbach’s Yann Sommer will be in goal but the two back-up goalkeepers are also very highly rated, Roman Bürki (Borussia Dortmund) and Marwin Hitz (Augsburg). The full-backs, again injuries permitting, are also set in stone.

On the right there is new captain, Juventus’s Stephan Lichtsteiner, who has won the scudetto five times in a row now, on the left there is the former Under-17 World Cup champion Ricardo Rodriguez. Centrally, Petkovic is expected to play with Johan Djourou and Fabian Schär with Timm Klose being injured in May. Philippe Senderos, now with Grasshoppers, is another alternative.

Xherdan Shaqiri is the team’s star, the player who can do the completely unpredictable and win a game on is own. So he is obviously in the starting XI, the only question being where he plays: Does he play on the right? Behind a lone striker? Or does he enjoy the freedom of being at the apex of a three-man attack?

Haris Seferovic could be an alternative and is more of a classic No9. He has not had a prolific season, though. In fact, before he scored the decisive goal to keep Frankfurt in the Bundesliga in May, he had not found the net since November. Also, he was sent off in the pre-Euro friendly against Belgium for dissent, infuriating Petkovic to the degree that the coach said "decisions like that could ruin the hopes of a generation".

Probable starting XI: Sommer; Lichtsteiner, Schär, Djourou, Rodriguez; Behrami, Xhaka, Dzemaili; Shaqiri, Seferovic, Mehmedi.

  • Which Switzerland player is going to surprise everyone at the Euro 2016?

After Gökhan Inler (89 caps for Switzerland) was left out of the squad the time has come for Granit Xhaka to show what he can do on a bigger stage. Not a complete unknown, of course, but people may still be surprised of just how good he is. The fact that his move to Arsenal has been sorted before the tournament will be a further boost for him.

  • Which player could be a disappointment?

Haris Seferovic. Despite that goal in the play-off against Nürnberg there is no disguising that this has been a poor season for him. Does he have the mindset to put that behind him and play well for Switzerland at the Euros? Arguably not judging by the red card against Belgium recently.

  • What is the realistic aim for Switzerland at the Euro 2016 and why?

Vladimir Petkovic wants his team to be qualified for the knock out stage already after the first two games of the group stage against Albania and Romania. We just assume that Switzerland will still need points in the last game against France. Last 16, why not? After that dreaming is legit.

Secrets behind the players

By Max Kern
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  • Haris Seferović

A player who is not afraid to go his own way, he – in contrast to many other players these days who seem keen to increase their social media profile – closed his Facebook account recently. The reason? He was fed up with all the negative comments on there. "I am not in the mood to see comments from certain people. In those situations you need to stay positive and to hold your head high." The move to close down his Facebook account was good as he a few weeks later got needlessly sent off in the pre-Euro friendly against Belgium. That did not go down well with the public, or his manager, Vladimir Petkovic.

  • Johan Djourou

Born in the Ivory Coast as a result of his father’s extra-marital affair with Angeline in 1986. Back in Switzerland, Joachim Djourou, told his Swiss wife, Daniéle, what had happened. Daniéle, however, did not react how one would expect and Johan Djourou told Blick in 2014: "My Mum in Switzerland did not have any kids at the time and, while she was disappointed with what my Dad had done, she forgave him and did not hesitate to adopt me."

Fabian Schär

In 2010 there was little to indicate that the defender would become an international footballer. He knew it too so that is why he studied for a back-up career in a local bank, the Raiffeisen in Wil, where he was playing for the local second-division club. "I used to work all day in the bank and then go to training and then come home and start my homework at 10pm," he said after joining Basel, where he has played Champions League football. While at Wil, he came to national attention when he scored against FC Aarau with a preposterous shot from well inside his own half.

  • Breel Embolo

Was widely praised in November 2015 when, with Basel losing 3-2 against Grasshoppers, he told the referee that he had wrongly given Basel a corner. The official thanked him, he received a kiss from the Grasshoppers defender Harun Alpsoy and backing from his team-mates. Michael Lang said: "That says a lot about Breel and his character. To be able to keep his cool and do that in such a hectic and important game speaks volumes."

  • Valon Behrami

In April 2015, with Hamburg deep in relegation trouble and the team struggling against Wolfsburg, Behrami came embroiled in a dressing-room bust up with none other than his Swiss team-mate Johan Djourou. According to the German newspaper Bild, the two Swiss internationals started arguing in French before ending up on the floor with shoes flying through the home dressing room. The club’s sporting director, Dietmar Beiersdorfer, said: "There was an emotional dispute. We have disciplinary rules and those who break them will be punished.


  • Goal

    Yann Sommer (Bor. Mönchengladbach)
    Marwin Hitz (FC Augsburg)
    Roman Bürki (Borussia Dortmund)

  • Defense

    Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus Turin)
    Francois Moubandje (FC Toulouse)
    Nico Elvedi (Bor. Mönchengladbach)
    Steve von Bergen (Young Boys Bern)
    Michael Lang (FC Basel)
    Ricardo Rodriguez (VfL Wolfsburg)
    Johan Djourou (Hamburger SV)
    Fabian Schär (1899 Hoffenheim)

  • Midlfield

    Fabian Frei (FSV Mainz)
    Granit Xhaka (Bor. Mönchengladbach)
    Valon Behrami (Watford)
    Denis Zakaria (Young Boys Bern)
    Blerim Dzemaili (FC Genua)
    Gelson Fernandes (Stade Rennes)
    Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City)

  • Offense

    Breel Embolo (FC Basel)
    Haris Seferovic (Eintracht Frankfurt)
    Shani Tarashaj (Grasshoppers Zürich)
    Admir Mehmedi (Bayer Leverkusen)
    Eren Derdiyok (Kasimpasa Istanbul)
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