IT WAS Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’ who made the memorable observation that, in 500 years of peace and democracy, the Swiss managed to produce nothing more interesting or exciting than the cuckoo clock.
However, pedants like to gleefully point out that the cuckoo clock actually originated in the Black Forest of Germany — and you could hardly accuse that country of adhering to a policy of sober neutrality down all the years.
But the real eye-opener for Harry Lime — or Harry Liam, as Giovanni Trapattoni probably knows him — would occur if he could be transported this evening to the St Jakob-Park in Basel where Switzerland have the honour of opening the 2008 European Championships with a game against the Czech Republic.
Belying the national stereotype, the home fans in the 40,000-seater stadium are as passionate and colourful as they come. Just ask Brian Kerr, who saw his Irish team brushed aside there in a decisive qualifier almost five years ago, amid scenes of flag-waving jubilation on the part of the locals as Kobi Kuhn and his charges booked their plane to Portugal.
The venerable Kuhn is still at the helm but making his final stand in this tournament before Ottmar Hitzfeld takes up the baton. And while there are some critical voices in these parts who say that the 64-year-old — in charge since 2001 — should have left the stage before now, the majority of Swiss football supporters would be only too delighted to see the popular old boy bow out on a high.
And there is a good reason why the neutral visitor to this famously neutral country should desire the same thing. Put simply, the longer the Swiss can stay in the competition, the more enjoyable and exciting Euro 2008 will be as an event. Ditto, co-hosts Austria.
Your correspondent has seen this phenomenon to especially thrilling effect twice in recent years. First, when South Korea’s footballers set off a giddy, infectious, national hysteria with their startling run at the 2002 World Cup finals and then, four years later, when Germany proceeded to fall in love with itself — and embrace all comers in its romantic fervour — as the Nationalmannschaft defied initially low expectations to finish third in the 2006 Mundial. It’s no exaggeration to say that to have been on the ground in Seoul or Berlin during those wonderfully mad times will count among the most memorable experiences of our professional lives for those of us who were lucky enough to be there.
So Switzerland and Austria have a lot to live up to, though the odds must surely be stacked against both — and in particular the hapless Austrian team — surviving long enough for authentic mania to grip the people from Bern to Vienna.
But, soft, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The joy of this moment, on the morning of the first day, lies in the notion that, before the games commence, everything is possible, everyone is equal and all are entitled to dream.
Even more impressive are the giant figures of some of European football’s most stellar names gathered in a huddle and towering above commuters in the concourse of Zurich’s main railway station. They were still having the finishing touches put to them when we passed through the other evening, a tricky-looking high-wire business which, at one point, produced the strangely pleasing spectacle of a tiny workman appearing to crawl out of Michael Ballack’s backside. (Do remind me to look up Dr Freud when I get to Vienna).
Needless to say, the ubiquitous Ronaldo is also represented in this footballing Mount Rushmore, prompting the fertile mind to conjure up a B-movie catastrophe in which the twinkle-toed monster topples over onto the Zurich to Geneva express. In other words, a proper rail disaster, as distinct from that other Real disaster which is currently keeping Man United fans awake at night.
If the boy wonder can drag himself away from his currency converter long enough, he will get another chance to show the world what all the fuss is about when Portugal take on Turkey in Geneva in this evening’s second Group A game. The Portuguese are fancied by many to go one better in Switzerland/Austria than they did on home soil four years ago but I suspect they blew their best chance when sensationally losing to Greece last time around. The Turks had to be content with qualifying for these finals in the slipstream of the runaway Greeks but should still provide a solid test of Portugal’s championship credentials tonight.
Meanwhile, as the big kick off approaches, we, the hacks, are just about ready to peak ourselves after gearing up for the finals in the traditional manner. That is to say: we spent yesterday morning queuing not so patiently for our accreditation at the Letzigrund stadium in Zurich and when asked to smile for the camera, managed, as ever, to produce mugshots bearing a disturbing resemblance to those pictures of the Birmingham Six after they were ‘interviewed’ by the West Midlands police.
The job done, the friendly official who was processing my details directed me to another table with the interesting words: “And there you will become a package.” (Although perhaps not quite as interesting as the technical advice received earlier: “And now you can activate your tool”). In any event, what the nice man meant was that I was about to be given a free Euro 2008 shoulder bag, a lovely thing suitable for storage of lap-top, notebook, tape-recorder, duty-free bottles, ulcer tablets and all the other essentials of the inky trade.
And what do you think was unanimous response of the hack fraternity when presented with this thoughtful gift? Freebie. With mounting desperation we ripped open every zip in the bag in what proved to be a fruitless search for more free goodies presumed to be within. And when we didn’t turn up so much as a baseball cap or a t-shirt, we snorted loudly and stalked off into the rain muttering darkly in our various tongues about what a thankless task it is to have to cover the finals a major football tournament.
And so, only one item remains outstanding before Euro 2008 can be allowed to kick off: the mandatory goalkeeping whinge about the new match ball. Pardon? What’s that you say? Petr Cech already has? Oh, lightning reflexes there from the big man. Excellent.
All the boxes have been ticked. Let’s get ready to yodellllllllll….
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