This article is part of the Guardian’s Women’s Euro 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 16 countries who have qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 6 July.
“I am tired like a dog but we have fought for each other. I don’t give a shit how we won, we are going to the Euros.” The words were Lia Wälti’s, speaking moments after Switzerland had beaten the Czech Republic on penalties in April 2021 to qualify for this summer’s tournament. The second leg had been a gruesome evening, finishing 1-1 and 2-2 on aggregate before the spot-kicks. To make matters worse Switzerland missed their first two, through Malin Gut and Coumba Sow, but up stepped the goalkeeper Gaëlle Thalmann to save two penalties while the Czech midfielder Katerina Svitkova hit the bar.
Qualifying was so important for Switzerland and their Danish manager, Nils Nielsen. Having missed out on the 2019 World Cup, being absent again would have meant that the team would have fallen further behind the best sides. And for the Swiss FA it is important that the women’s side, like the men’s, qualify for the major tournaments. The men have missed out on only one since 2004; the women have some catching up to do when it comes to consistency.
It was Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, the German who oversaw Switzerland from 2012 to 2018, who changed the mentality of the women’s side in the country. She implemented a whole new structure when she took over, including youth talent programmes. It resulted in Switzerland qualifying for their first finals, the World Cup in Canada in 2015, and she followed that up by reaching the 2017 Euros. She is now the Germany manager.
Several players were rewarded with big moves abroad and by 2017, stars such as Lara Dickenmann and Ramona Bachmann had become known to the wider Swiss public. Before the Voss-Tecklenburg era the games were watched by just a handful of fans.
Switzerland travel to England more in hope than expectation but Nielsen knows he can count on his players to give their all. “This is an incredible group of players,” he said after that dramatic night in Thun. “They have so much character, it is great to work with them.”
Nils Nielsen took over the national team in 2018, just after Switzerland had missed out on qualifying for the 2019 World Cup. He was in charge of the Danish women’s national team between 2013 and 2017, taking them to European Championship final in his last year in charge. That led to him finishing second in the Fifa Best Women’s Coach award. Born in Greenland, he moved to Denmark when he was five. Had accepted a job in China in 2018 but quit after a short while because his son had trouble breathing in the Beijing smog. That opened the door for Nielsen to take the Switzerland job.
Lia Wälti is the backbone and leader of the Swiss national team. The 29-year-old midfielder became captain in 2018 and is closing on a century of caps. She has always strived to develop and moved abroad, to Germany and Turbine Potsdam in the Bundesliga when she was 20. She was made captain in her second season. In 2018 she moved to Arsenal, where she has established herself in the WSL. Just before the Euros, she spoke out about the differences between the men’s and the women’s national teams. “We have female players who have to take unpaid leave from their real jobs so they can attend the national team’s training camps,” she said. “That’s a problem. We just want to have the same conditions and structures as the men.”
Svenja Fölmli. Arguably the biggest talent of all Swiss forwards. She followed in the footsteps of her older brothers when it came to football and was quite clear at the age of 10she wanted to become a professional footballer. And she managed that before she was out of her teens, coming through the performance centre in Biel to join Lucerne in the Super League. “She is the first one on the pitch for training and the last one to leave,” said her former coach at Lucerne, Glenn Meier. Joined Freiburg in the Bundesliga at the age of 18 and made her international debut at 17 and is hoping that this tournament can be her big breakthrough.
By the time Lara Dickenmann ended her 17-year national team career she was the record holder in terms of number of caps (135) and goals (53). She made her debut in 2002 as a 16-year-old and left as captain and legend. Around Dickenmann the national team developed from amateurs to professional players. A crucial part of that was Dickenmann’s successful club career. The now 36-year-old won the Champions League twice and collected 23 trophies in a career that featured six years at Lyon before she moved to Wolfsburg in 2015. Playing her last game in 2021, she said: “I had said beforehand that I shouldn’t cry. It didn’t go that well.”
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Switzerland have qualified for the Euros only once, in 2017. There, they hoped to reach the last eight but having lost to Austria in the first game they always faced an uphill battle. However, they beat Iceland to go into the game against France with a chance of going through but, despite playing with a woman more for a long period of time, the game ended in a draw and Switzerland were eliminated.
Realistic aim this summer
Being in a group with Portugal, Sweden and the Netherlands is extremely tough. The first game against Portugal is vital. Lose or draw that and the dream of reaching the knockout stage is almost gone there and then.
Bettina Brülhart writes for Blick. Follow her here on Twitter.