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The long read: How Hodgson saved Swiss football

5 July 2019

Roy Hodgson managed the Switzerland national side between 1992-95, and in that time, he pulled off one of the most remarkable achievements seen in international football. 24 years later, with Crystal Palace’s participation in the annual Uhrencup having taken the manager back to the alpine nation, we’ve broken down just how Hodgson saved the Swiss.

As the then-44-year-old stepped into his first role on the international stage, Roy Hodgson was little known away from Scandinavian shores despite the wealth of success he had amassed in almost 16 years of professional management. The role he would step into - that of managing the Swiss national side - fittingly came without an overwhelming weight of expectation due to years of failure grounding a sense nationwide pessimism when it came to global football.

The now-Crystal Palace manager had already won five consecutive league championships with Swedish outfit Malmö but was still in the relative infancy of his eventual 43-year career when Schweizer Nati came knocking.

With the Swiss having failed to reach a major international tournament for 28 years, the alpine mountain facing Hodgson was of considerable size, however any hope of his appointment being the catalyst which would send Switzerland to new heights was dim in the face of rock-bottom national expectation.

Unfazed by both the magnitude of his task - leading Switzerland to worldwide recognition on the football pitch - and the almost forgone conclusion that the Swiss were not notable ‘players’ on the global scene, Hodgson faced qualification for another World Cup in which Switzerland were expected to be mere spectators. Their rivals for a place in the tournament? Italy, Portugal and Scotland.

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By the summer of 1994, however, Roy Hodgson found himself in the dugout of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Washington D.C., as manager of a Switzerland side which had reached not only the World Cup finals, but the knock-out rounds of the World Cup finals too.

They had also sat at the dizzying height of third in FIFA’s World Rankings the previous summer and thus achieved something which has not yet been repeated despite a surgent increase in funding for Swiss football.

‘A kind of god’ - what Hodgson turned around

A proud, relatively successful footballing nation for the first half of the 20th century, the number of Swiss natives who could recall their country hosting the 1954 World Cup and subsequently reaching its quarter-finals was enough to make the drought of the 1970s and ‘80s a painful experience.

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The tournament in ‘54 saw 5.38 goals per game fly in (a record standing to this day) and the Swiss feature in the highest-ever scoring World Cup clash: a 7-5 loss to Austria.

There was also the joint-largest winning margin in the history of the competition when Hungary defeated South Korea 9-0, the most goals scored by a single team (Hungary: 27), the first ever televised coverage of a World Cup match and the iconic ‘Miracle of Bern’, in which West Germany controversially triumphed over Ferenc Puskás’ Hungary to win the Jules Rimet trophy.

All in all, then, the 1954 World Cup will go down in history and a certain generation of Swiss football fans still following the game 40 years on were able to reflect upon a golden time when their nation sat at the heart of global football as proud hosts of one of the most iconic tournaments in 20th Century sport.

Shortly after, it all came crashing down.

The Swiss national side failed to appear at the World Cup finals in six consecutive attempts from 1966 onwards and, worse still, hadn’t featured once in the European Championships in nine incarnations since its inception in 1960.

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The glory years of international football in Switzerland were fast becoming faded memories for jaded fans who had watched as their country’s standing steadily slipped and stumbled until 1992 when Uli Stielike, the first Swiss coach to have a winning record, departed for Neuchâtel Xamax.

Heading the other way, however, was Hodgson; filling-in Stielike’s shoes as he vacated the job at Xamax for his debut journey into international football.

Three years later and by the end of Hodgson’s tenure, Switzerland had flown up the World Rankings, qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years and their first ever European Championship. They had also set up a sustainable model for their international football that today sees them as respected global competitors with a talented, fruitful production line supporting the country to a healthy and stable eighth World Ranking, something many attribute partial responsibility for to Hodgson.

So just how did he manage it? Below, we’ve taken a look specifically at the 1994 World Cup and qualification campaign preceding it.

Hidden talent

In spite of everything facing Swiss football in the early 1990s, the national side had at its disposal a largely undiscovered pool of talent. And with Stielike seemingly leaving the team on the up (albeit following a disastrous record in Italia ‘90 qualification attempts), part of Hodgson’s task was to turn his squad into its most efficient self by getting the maximum from the able players on offer whilst ensuring those with experience, knowledge and assurance - himself included - remained prominent voices at the forefront of the country’s development.

Different sources have referred to Hodgson’s squad for the 1994 World Cup as both young and old respectively, with the range of ages comprising his team seemingly distorting the picture. In truth, Hodgson’s selection included a variety of ages and total appearances: with his youngest player just 22 and his eldest two both firm veterans at 36.

And though the average age was, in fact, over 27, the south Londoner tasked himself with nurturing a collection of relatively unknown Swiss footballers on the biggest stage in the sport. By the time Switzerland were ready to open the 1994 tournament against its hosts, the United States, Hodgson was leading a squad with an average caps total of just 28, making his team largely untested.

However, in his arsenal were also experienced professionals aged over 33 such as Alain Geiger, André Egli and Georges Bregy, the latter of whom Hodgson had brought back to the fold after an 11-year international hiatus, being duly rewarded with the opening goal of Switzerland’s campaign.

But on the whole his team were late arrivals to the international scene and Hodgson’s considered faith in inexperience - if not strictly youth - paid off with standout performers in the USA including Alain Sutter, Marc Hottiger, Ciriaco Sforza, Stéphane Chapuisat, Christophe Ohrel and Adrian Knup, all of which were aged 26 or under.

Four of these six noteworthy performers entered the tournament with less than 40 international appearances to their name, with only Hottiger and Sutter picking up more: 41 and 46 respectively. For such effective members of the line-up, the others had a relatively low average total of just 30.

In fact, looking at Hodgson’s stars in the 1994 World Cup and seeing exactly who went on to carry the nation after the manager took flight in 1995 is perhaps the most telling vindication of his well-placed trust.

Taking Switzerland’s all-time top 10 goalscorers, for example, three of the group played prominently under Hodgson: Chapuisat (21 goals), Knup (23) and World Cup injury absentee Kubilay Türkyilmaz (34), all three of which were less than four years into their international careers when Hodgson took charge.

There is, and always has been, an art to cultivating raw, inexperienced talent into a more polished product in football, however. The manager didn’t simply throw together the freshest-faced prospects he could find and leave them to fend for themselves...

A flexible hard line - what was Hodgson’s style?

It’s too easy an answer to portray the then-47-year-old Hodgson as unfalteringly set in his ways as he surprised the world by guiding Switzerland to their newfound standing. Describing Hodgson’s approach as obsessively pragmatic and authoritarian would undermine the manager’s ability to select when and where his well-known disciplinary and unambiguous style was best suited.

After all, at his disposal was a crop of players with flair and abundant ability: attacking players who needed room for their eye-catching skill to flourish when roaming forwards.

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Speaking with The Telegraph in 2014, Alain Sutter - one of the talented, rising stars - suggested that Hodgson was able to balance control with freedom in an act which didn’t constrict creativity but left no room for confusion amongst those in need of shepherding.

“Roy was strict, but never stubborn,” Sutter said. “He had an open ear – this was something very good about him. The door was always there to talk to him, but to convince him you needed to have good arguments. If you did, then he was able to change his mind.

“On the pitch, you still had your freedom. I was a very creative player, so I needed that space, and he left it to me. For all those who weren’t so creative, though, Roy would tell them exactly what they had to do. He knew precisely what style each individual had.”

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The routine Hodgson brought with him was challenging for the Swiss as he injected a new approach to the country’s football, introducing the 4-4-2 formation (without relying on it). Furthermore, Hodgson brought about a scrupulous tactical focus on both the opposition and national players themselves, instilling an immense work rate both physically and academically for his charges.

In fact, speaking retrospectively, commentators on the Swiss at the time regarded the team as bearing all the hallmarks of a characteristic, successful Hodgson side: hard work, clear instructions and a staggering ability to counter-attack with pace, flair and dynamism perhaps alarming for a well-drilled defensive outfit.

Hodgson himself wouldn’t disagree, assessing his approach to football as largely constant throughout over 40 years of management.

Looking over his career in a recent interview with the official Palace programme, the 71-year-old said: “Am I a different person on the coaching field today than I was in 1976 [when his coaching career began]? I don’t think I am…

“In terms of my actual approach to the coaching and what needs to be done, the principles I believe in, the type of practices I think are necessary to get those principles across and what I expect from players on the training field and matchday, things haven’t changed much at all.”

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But that returns to the simple, all-too-easy portrayal of Hodgson as obsessively pragmatic. Looking past testimony, even the most logical tool - numbers - support the suggestion that this up-and-coming Englishman was willing to take a measured risk when required as Switzerland were the top scorers in the World Cup qualifiers despite facing the likes of Italy and Portugal in the process.

In the World Cup itself, they were far from predictable or conservative, seeing 12 goals in total hit either their or the oppositions’ net in their four clashes on the global stage of ‘94.

While style and performances are essential elements in a winning formula, though, with decades of instinctive pessimism and a growing disregard for football seeping into the Swiss outlook, Hodgson had to re-shape life off the pitch as well.

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A divided nation’s united effort

Hodgson’s mission in Switzerland was two-fold: to improve the performances of the Swiss national team and to change the sporting culture of a country that had become wearily accustomed to failure.

To achieve one, it was imperative he achieved the other, with success on the field supporting his efforts off it and vice versa. But Hodgson faced challenges in his bid to change Swiss footballing mindsets just as he did when reforming tactics and effort on the turf.

In just three years, however, he managed to integrate with and adapt an entire country’s footballing approach, not only shifting the way the Swiss national set-up operated but also uniting an intrinsically divided changing room.

By virtue of being a developed, modern society, Switzerland is somewhat fragmented. Carved into 26 cantons (the country’s federal states), heavily influenced by the culture of the five countries landlocking it and physically split by disruptive, mountainous terrain; Switzerland is diverse for a nation of its relatively small size and population.

Indeed, an election towards the end of Hodgson’s tenure in 1995 saw the National Council of Switzerland share 73.7% of votes between four different political parties, the range between fourth and first being only 14.9 - 21.8%. By contrast, just two years later, the Conservative and Labour parties of Great Britain swallowed up 73.9% of votes with a share of 30.7 - 43.2% respectively between them.

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Furthermore, in the 1990s, the Swiss predominantly spoke three languages: German (63%), French (19%) and Italian (8%). And with the country additionally divided by which region generally speaks which language, Hodgson faced the unique challenge of a changing room chopped into three linguistic clusters.

All in all, then, Switzerland was a splintered nation geographically, culturally, politically and linguistically. Hodgson’s challenge was to unite these differences on the football field if nowhere else.

A crucial starting point for the manager was the internal mechanisms that governed national football and, faced with a disenchanted squad separated by the cultural chasms of Switzerland, Hodgson sought to foster a club mentality amongst the national outfit.

So, remarkably, he persuaded the Swiss FA to adopt regular training camps for the national players. Encouraged by Hodgson, the Swiss team would play with their domestic clubs over the weekend and then join the national outfit for training on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The near-weekly meetings would go on to encourage a club-like atmosphere where players were united and more accustomed to one another’s company and style both on and off the pitch.

But unifying divisions didn’t stop with getting the squad under one roof.

A renowned polyglot, Hodgson swiftly mastered Switzerland’s three major languages. It meant he was ultimately able to communicate throughout the squad: allowing his focussed, personalised training and tactical approach to support players across the team.

In addition to developing the languages, Hodgson also immersed himself in the culture of the Swiss, reportedly becoming quite an adept and regular skier in St Moritz.

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A legacy for the ages

Although Switzerland ultimately crashed out of the 1994 World Cup in the Round of 16 to Spain, they went on to qualify with ease for their first ever European Championship in 1996, losing just one of eight games on the road there.

Hodgson left the national side for Inter Milan having secured a place in the Euros, managing both Inter and the Swiss from October to mid-November 1995. Once qualification for the Euros was complete, Hodgson turned his attention solely to his latest challenge: restoring Inter’s place as giants of the Italian game.

His departure was clearly felt and the Swiss finished bottom of their group in ‘96, having amassed just one point from their maiden venture into the European tournament. They then subsequently failed to qualify for the next competition and were absent for the following two World Cups.

Today, however, they have qualified for the past three, progressing to the knockout stages twice and have attended three of the last four Euros, even co-hosting in 2008 alongside Austria.

Behind him Hodgson left a resolute legacy in the alpine nation, often credited as the saviour of Swiss international football. To this day, he is seen as a legend of the game in Switzerland, with many commentators citing him as having a role to play in the national side’s current blossoming existence.

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With a hand still in the country’s success, the development and inspiring of young, Swiss talent in the mid-1990s is often accredited to Hodgson. His efforts in adapting the national set-up and entrusting more inexperienced players appear to be bearing fruit today, with the entire current squad having been born between 1988 and 1997. Hodgson’s work on progressing youth development in the 1990s is therefore affecting the exact crop of Swiss footballers plying their trade in 2019.

Speaking in separate interviews with the Telegraph and Guardian respectively, former Swiss international Alain Sutter said: “The very good players we have now in the national team, Roy developed them.

“It’s his own fault that England will play a good team on Monday [speaking when Switzerland faced Hodgson’s England in September 2014] because he really started the whole development programme.”

As the first manager to apply pressure on the FA to focus on and invest in youth talent, Hodgson formed the basis for a very efficient development programme. In fact, near midway into the manager’s time with Switzerland, Credit Suisse became sponsors of the national team and half of their considerable funding has since been spent on spotting and nurturing young talent.

Perhaps more importantly, however, for three fulfilling years Hodgson gave joy and hope on the football pitch to a proud nation deprived of it for 28 years.

He re-installed faith amongst the Swiss in the abilities of their country and administered the euphoria of enjoying football across a nation in desperate need of it. When Roy Hodgson led Crystal Palace on his return to Switzerland last July, naturally, then, he was afforded a hero's welcome.

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