Vladimir Petkovic had some big shoes to fill when he took over as head coach of the Swiss national team in 2014 following Ottmar Hitzfeld’s successful tenure. But the 57-year-old has proven himself, and his contract was extended until the end of 2022 just a few months ago.
Petkovic, who was at the helm of Lazio in the Serie A just eight months before taking on his current role, has led Switzerland to qualification for both UEFA EURO 2016 in France and the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. However, they were knocked out in the last 16 at both tournaments, leaving them with unhappy memories of the 5-4 penalty shootout defeat to Poland in Saint-Etienne and of the 1-0 reverse to Sweden two years ago in St. Petersburg.
FIFA.com caught up with Petkovic shortly before the European qualifying draw for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
FIFA.com: Vladimir, what would be your verdict on 2020?
Vladimir Petkovic: The year 2020 will go down in the history books. The whole world was surprised by a pandemic, and it also affected football. I always take life as it comes and try to make the best out of it. After a long break, we had eight games in just under three months. It was both an intensive and informative time for my team and I. We played against the best teams in Europe in League A of the UEFA Nations League. In terms of results, there was room for improvement, but in the matches against Germany and Spain we saw that we’re developing positively, can compete with the best and assert ourselves.
To what extent has your work as a national team coach changed during the pandemic?
We weren’t able to meet up or play any matches for a very long time. In the end we were only actively out on the pitch for three months. We organised virtual meetings to maintain communication between the staff and players. Sometimes it was just so that we could see each other and have a drink together. I phoned the players a lot and watched the majority of their behind-closed-doors games on television, rather than at the stadiums. The players adapted to the new conditions, and my staff and I had to implement everything we hadn’t been able to before within a very short space of time. As I mentioned, I take everything as it comes and try to make the best of every situation.
What are your expectations for 2021? How far can you go at the European Championship?
It’ll be an intensive and eventful year for football in 2021. We’re looking forward to the World Cup qualifiers and the EURO, and we hope we’ll soon be able to play and experience football again like we did before the pandemic. We invested a lot in our Nations League campaign as preparations for the EURO. We want to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar and go as far as we can at the European Championship. A lot is possible with this team. If everything comes together we can go a long way and we hope that there will soon be a definitive decision that the EURO can go ahead as planned.
You will face Italy, Turkey and Wales in your group…
They’re three strong teams, but we don’t need to be scared of anybody. We go into each game looking to win it. Italy and Turkey have slight advantages in that they’re playing ‘home games’: Italy in Rome and Turkey in Baku. But our first objective is to progress to the next round.
Germany have received a lot of criticism recently. Were you surprised by their 6-0 defeat to Spain?
Obviously it’s a surprise when Germany lose 6-0, but it’s not that long ago that they beat Brazil 7-1. Anything is possible in football. There are extraordinary days like that when such things can happen, especially because we’re in a period where teams are gearing up for the EURO and World Cup qualification, and are trying things out. But the result shows that Spain are really good and have taken great strides. It also demonstrates just how good our 1-1 draw with Spain was, as we’d only played them three days earlier. That result didn’t receive the credit it deserved in some quarters.
Switzerland drew against Germany in September and October. How important are those ‘prestigious’ results against Germany?
We’ve always said that we have no reason to fear anyone. Our players play in the best leagues in the world, and a lot of the time they line up alongside Germany players. We’ve climbed closer to the global elite. Those draws are evidence of that, but you could also see that we’re still missing that little something to be able to win those games.
Let’s talk about the Qatar 2022 qualifying draw. Is there a country you would like to avoid?
You can’t pick and choose in World Cup qualifying. All the teams in Pot 1 are very good, and there are strong sides in Pots 2 and 3 as well. We always just take it as it comes and hope for the luck of the draw so that we end up qualifying with good performances.
Would you be happy to be drawn against Germany?
Of course. Germany are our neighbours. We’ve got a long-standing neighbourly friendship and a rich history of football together. Matches against Germany are always special and they’re highlights for our fans too. But we need to improve certain details in order to assert ourselves fully against teams like that. We would really look forward to a game against Germany.
Switzerland have qualified for the last four consecutive World Cups. Will Die Eidgenossen also be at Qatar?
We’ll do everything we can to get there. We’re very confident and believe we can do it, even though it’ll be harder to qualify because only the group winners and three best runners-up in Europe get a ticket. We’ll do our utmost to execute everything positively.
To what extent has the coronavirus pandemic affected results? Can there be more surprises?
I don’t think results have been affected by it. The pandemic has affected everyone, so every association and every team are battling the same difficulties. During the UEFA Nations League everyone had to learn how to cope with the pandemic, and we saw that there is room for improvement in some places.
What are your thoughts in general on the 2022 World Cup? Have you ever been to Qatar?
I’ve never been there and I’m looking forward to getting to know the country. I’m very curious to see what will await us. There’s a short window for preparation because the World Cup is taking place in winter, and the players won’t be as tired as they usually would be before a World Cup. The players from the top leagues will be fitter than they would be in June, so that will make the quality and intensity even greater. You can learn from that and pick up new experiences as a coach and as a team, all geared towards having a good World Cup.
Will the World Cup be an extra special tournament due to it taking place in winter?
It is indeed something special for the players and for fans all over the world. For our fans at home that will mean public viewing at indoor locations and not outside on a nice summer’s evening. But now those who live in the other hemisphere will get to experience a World Cup in summer. In Europe, people will be at home more during the winter and will be following the entire spectacle on their screens.
Switzerland have reached the Round of 16 in three of their last four World Cup campaigns. Can you go even further in 2022?
We’re working on it. We’re constantly looking to improve, step by step. First of all we want to qualify. The second step is to make it out of our group. And we’ll do everything we can to be able to take further steps too.