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Fiji Time: 9:59 PM on Saturday 20 September

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Swiss want big farewell

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Friday, May 16, 2014

GENEVA, Switzerland - Switzerland's veteran boss Ottmar Hitzfeld retires after the World Cup finals and his young squad aim to give him a farewell to remember in Brazil.

In their third consecutive World Cup, the "Nati" are out to prove that their seventh place in FIFA's global rankings is not a statistical fluke.

The 65-year-old German Hitzfeld has set his sights on at least clearing Group E, where Switzerland face France, Ecuador and Honduras.

Reaching the last 16 would erase Switzerland's bad memories of 2010 in South Africa.

They were the only team to beat eventual champions Spain, winning 1-0 in their opening game, but then lost 1-0 to Chile and drew 0-0 with Honduras and failed to reach the knockout stage.

That was a blow after their showing in Germany in 2006 under Hitzfeld's predecessor, Swiss icon Koebi Kuhn.

There, they finished top of their group, ahead of France, South Korea and Togo, but were knocked out on penalties by Ukraine in the next round.

Former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich boss Hitzfeld has said the looming tournament will bring down the curtain on his three-decade coaching career.

Though his star fell after his failure to reach the 2012 European Championships, Hitzfeld rebounded and is nicknamed "Gottmar" — a play on the German for God.

Football is rivalled only by ice hockey and skiing as the Alpine country's top spectator sport.

The country of eight million punches above its weight for players fed into the leagues of Germany, Italy, England and Spain.

Like Kuhn, Hitzfeld has tapped Switzerland's admired youth system, drawing the highly rated squad that won the 2009 under-17 World Cup — Switzerland's only international trophy.

Among them are 22-year-old Haris Seferovic, at Real Sociedad, plus 21-year-olds Granit Xhaka of Borussia Monchengladbach and Pajtim Kasami of Fulham.

Like 22-year-old Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri, the players are the Swiss version of the "rainbow" teams in Europe that have been reinvigorated by migrants.

Fittingly, Hitzfeld's chosen successor, Lazio manager Vladimir Petkovic, is Yugoslav-born but spent much of his career in Italian-speaking Switzerland.

On the footballing front, the omens for Brazil are mixed, however.

A 16-match unbeaten streak — including surprise defeats of Germany and Brazil in friendlies — ended in November when they lost 2-1 in South Korea.

Nor was their World Cup qualifying run the toughest, with opponents in the shape of Albania, Cyprus, Iceland, Norway and Slovenia.


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