It’s never easy to define a team by a single year. There are so many variables, so many intricacies, that can determine what constitutes a “great year”, that it’s almost impossible to put one above another.
For starters, everything is relative: is it “better” to over-achieve with a weak squad, for example, or to succeed with a side that was always expected to win? Like everything in football, you’ll never get a unanimous decision.
After Remo Freuler scored Switzerland’s fourth goal of the night against Bulgaria last Monday, however, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a single Swiss fan in attendance that wouldn’t put 2021 right at the top of the pile for the men’s “Nati”.
Monday wasn’t Mission Impossible for Switzerland, more like Mission Improbable. Joint in points with Italy, who sat atop the group on goal difference, Switzerland knew that bettering the Italians’ result against Northern Ireland would see them through automatically to the World Cup. A plethora of high-profile injuries would make that a tough ask already, but the weakened Swiss had managed to hold Italy to a 1-1 draw in Rome, so the fight was certainly there.
If Italy won, however, Switzerland would need a three-goal swing in their favour to jump above them into first place. Considering Italy were reigning European Champions and had beaten Northern Ireland 2-0 in their first game, it looked likely that the Swiss would have to settle for the lottery of the play-offs.
At half-time, with the score deadlocked at 0-0, the dream was looking ever-more out of reach. Switzerland were pushing, roared on by a raucous crowd in Luzern, but they just couldn’t break down the Bulgarian back-line.
It took just three minutes after the restart, however, for the lock to be picked. Noah Okafor, one of the great hopes for the future of Swiss football, rose to head home the old hero, Xherdan Shaqiri’s cross, opening the door for a simply incredible 45 minutes.
Goals from Ruben Vargas, Cedric Itten, and Remo Freuler made sure that, even if Italy had managed to sneak a last-minute winner in Belfast, it wouldn’t be enough.
A 4-0 win, automatic qualification to the 2022 World Cup, and huge performances from the entire team put a cherry on top of what had already been an impressive year for Switzerland. In 17 games, the Swiss lost just once in normal time, coincidentally to the Italians on their way to success in the Euros.
Of those 16 other games, just 6 ended in a draw on 90 minutes, and 11 ended in victory for the “Nati”. Italy and Spain were the only sides to beat them this year. 14 different players scored 37 goals, while at the back they conceded just 15 and kept 7 clean sheets.
It’s rare, particularly for international sides, to have two clear-cut contenders for “most important moment of the year”, but Swiss fans have the enjoyable problem of picking between their World Cup qualification on Monday evening, and the roller coaster Euros Quarter-Final against France back in June. Trailing 3-1 and hemmed in on 80 minutes by a French team that looked to be already thinking about who their opponents would be in the next round, nobody would have blamed the Swiss for simply controlling the damage that could have been done to them in the last 10.
Most saw the Swiss as also-rans anyway, having just scraped through the group stages (which included a particularly lacklustre defeat in Rome), so there was no shame in being knocked out by most pundits’ pick for the trophy.
Where the energy came from to come back and not only take the game to extra time, but to actually win, God only knows. However, the victory in Bucharest represented a huge moment for the Swiss: they weren’t there just to make up the numbers anymore.
So, has 2021 been the greatest year for Swiss football on the international stage? Nothing has been won – no trophies have been lifted – but as I said before, this is about relativity. Switzerland is a country that is yet to cement itself on the international stage. There have been good runs, impressive performances, stand-out individuals, sure, but this year felt like the first time the Swiss took a significant step towards being considered a genuine threat to the traditional “big boys” of the European game.
Beating the reigning World champions and pipping the European champions to WC qualification in the space of a year? I doubt many people could have seen it coming. Relatively, this year has felt huge for Switzerland. And now is the time to keep building.
With a new coach, a new sense of belonging, and a group of talented youngsters making their way into the first team already, 2022 might just be even better.