Soccer America
Wednesday June 11th, 2008

Fifteen years ago, at the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern, a revival of Swiss soccer began when the national team took a major step toward 1994 World Cup qualification by beating mighty Italy, 1-0.

Not since the 1966 tournament in England had Switzerland qualified for a World Cup, but a squad led by Ciriaco Sforza and Stéphane Chapuisat, and coached by Englishman Roy Hodgson, surprised Italy with a goal by defender Marc Hottiger.

At the time, Raphaël Wicky was a teenager living in his hometown of Leuggern (population: 2,100) and waiting for a chance to launch his pro career. His goal was modest: to find a club. He didn't dream of joining the Swiss team, most of whom played in their native country. Chapuisat (Borussia Dortmund) and Sforza (Kaiserslautern) were among the few employed by clubs in Germany and elsewhere.

"When I was very young, 15 or 16 or 17, I was not really thinking about going to other countries," recalls Wicky, who signed an MLS contract last winter to play for Chivas USA following a 16-year career in Europe "I was just trying to play at a high level. I was just doing my job. I didn't have time to think about it.

"When you start thinking too early or too much about going here or going there, maybe you lose your job. So just play good in the league you are, and then you have some quality you are always going to have opportunities to go into a better league."

Later that year, FC Sion -- which provided the entire back line, including Hottiger -- came calling with an offer, and Switzerland finished second in its qualifying group to reach USA '94. It exceeded expectations by tying the U.S., 1-1, and thrashing Romania, 4-1, to reach the second round, where it fell to Spain, 3-0.

"For the country, it was the first time we had qualified in 28 years to a tournament, so it was a big, big thing," says Wicky, who is anxious to see how his native country performs as Euro 2008 co-host. "That's when the interest about soccer restarted in Switzerland because it's always important the national team makes good results."

Wicky has spent most of his time in the U.S. recovering from injuries and hopes to be fit sometime during Euro '08. He faded from the national-team scene after serving his country for a decade and playing in three major tournaments (the '96 and '04 European Championships and the '06 World Cup). He came to MLS from the German Bundesliga, where he played for nearly a decade with Werder Bremen and Hamburg.

During his career, dozens of players -- both Swiss and foreign -- have come through the Swiss league on their way to bigger, richer clubs. He believes Switzerland's return to major competitions and its status as co-host will again boost the game in his country on and off the field.

"Everybody still has the picture from the ['06] World Cup," says Wicky, who has 75 caps, which puts him among the Swiss top 10 in appearances. "Germany was organizing very well and everybody was watching, so Austria and Switzerland want to do the same and want to give a really good time to everybody who comes to the games.

"For the fans and our players, to have the Euro Cup in your country is once in a life. Austria and Switzerland want to show the foreign people coming in and give a good dimension to them."

Wicky impressed Hodgson almost as soon as he found regular playing time in Sion's midfield. He debuted for the national team against Wales two days before his 19th birthday but had sat on the bench several times before finally stepping onto the field.

That debut came in a friendly just two months before the '96 European Championship hosted by England, and despite not having played in any of the qualifiers, Wicky made the squad and replaced Chapuisat for the second half of a 1-0 loss to Scotland that eliminated Switzerland at the group stage.

By reaching the '94 World Cup, Switzerland had ended a drought of nearly three decades. Qualification for Euro '96 ended a record of failure that dated back to when the competition began in 1960. Rather suddenly, Swiss soccer gained some street cred.

"When we qualified in 1994, we already had three, four or five players like Ciriaco Sforza already playing in other leagues, but most of the players were in Switzerland," says Wicky. "That's the time when the other leagues started to watch Swiss players. After '94 and '96, a lot more players went to the big leagues."

Prior to the Euros, Sion had captured the '96 Swiss Cup by beating Servette, 3-2, in the final. Wicky scored one of Sion's goals to down Servette, whose own scorers included future German international Oliver Neuville, the son of a German father and Italian mother born in Locarno.

A year later, Sion won the league title, and in the summer of '97, Wicky would join a growing migration of players from Swiss clubs to the Bundesliga and other teams in Europe by signing with Werder Bremen, which had observed Wicky not so much with the national team, but playing for Sion in European club play. He left Bremen in 2001 for a brief stint in Spain, then came back to the Bundesliga to play with Hamburg until last year.

"I had a great time in Germany," Wicky says. "I played there for nine years, six years in Hamburg. I have a lot of friends there. But I am really excited to be here and I really like it. I'm not sad because I'm happy with what I did with my career up to now. I have 16 great years in soccer and I have seen a lot of the world. I have to be thankful that I've had this career and not be sad that I left Germany."

Switzerland's soccer history is richer than most fans know. It won the silver medal at the 1924 Olympic Games, losing to Uruguay, 3-0, in the gold-medal match in Paris. Three decades later, it hosted the '54 World Cup, during which 140 goals -- a record -- were scored, and several extraordinary games took place.

The Swiss were knocked out in the quarterfinals by '08 Euro co-host Austria in the highest-scoring World Cup match ever played, a 7-5 classic.

Switzerland waited a dozen years to get back to the World Cup. Current head coach Köbi Kuhn, then 22, played on that '66 team, and Wicky gives him a lot of credit for returning Switzerland to the world stage since taking over in December '01. (Former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, who spent most of his playing career in the Swiss league and started his coaching career there in '83, assumes the helm after Euro 2008.)

"Before he came, we also had good players," says Wicky of Kuhn, who started Wicky in each of the seven games Switzerland played at Euro '04 and the '06 World Cup. "We had good individual players in different leagues but we didn't have a team together, a group together, on the field. He did a great job in the last five or six years. He is the man who is responsible for the qualifications."

Missing out on a European Championship played in his home country is a disappointment, yet Wicky insists he's looking forward, both as a player and a spectator. He is the second former Swiss international to play in MLS, following midfielder Alain Sutter, who suffered a career-ending injury playing for Dallas in '98.

Even though they lost their Euro '08 opener to the Czech Republic, 1-0 last Saturday, Wicky hopes the Swiss are ready to go.

"Having the full stadiums and everybody watching should give us a little push, it should not give us a negative pressure," says Wicky. "Like Germany in '06. Before the World Cup, everybody was really pessimist because they had bad results. Then they won their opening game and everybody was happy. That's what can also happen with Switzerland.

"If you have a tournament at home, of course, the goal is to go to the semifinals or the final. But if it's not happen, life continues. We know that it's going to be difficult, but it's possible.

"We showed it in '06; we draw France [0-0] and we got good results in the other games. So you never know."

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine. Click here for three free issues.

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