IF JULES RIMET had got his way earlier, and the first World Cup had taken place in 1926, there’s a good chance that Switzerland might have been among the contenders. Given the recent history of the Swiss national team, that might seem like a bold statement, but for a brief moment in time, Switzerland could have considered themselves among Europe’s best teams.
It was a different, more innocent and more Corinthian time, but the Swiss made an impact in the 1924 Olympic Games in France, picking-up the silver medal in the football final after losing to the dominant rising force of the time, Uruguay.
The sport in Switzerland has a long history, however, and its football association was formed in 1895, making it one of the oldest in the world. Switzerland’s first club, St. Gallen, was established in 1879, and the inaugural Swiss league took place in 1897-98, with Grasshopper Club Zurich (founded in 1886) beating La Châtelaine Genève and Villa Longchamp Lausanne in the play-off finals.
Grasshopper was established by an English student, one Tom Griffith, a member of a band of scholars from Manchester Grammar School. They looked to their home in northern England for inspiration, and gave Grasshopper the Blackburn Rovers strip. FC Zurich, who became great rivals of Grasshopper, were formed 10 years later. Fussball Club Bern was formed in 1894 and four years on, the Young Boys of Bern club saw the light of day. Basel, who have dominated Swiss football in recent times, were formed in 1893.
From this footing, the Swiss became, along with the Brits, the great footballing evangelists in the years before World War One. A number of Swiss football administrators and coaches were instrumental in the growth of the game in Europe, including Hans Gamper, who founded FC Zurich and then Barcelona.
Swiss international football gathered momentum in the 1920s. Ironically, an Englishman guided them to the Olympic silver medal. Teddy Duckworth was a relatively modest right winger with Blackpool, West Ham and Blackburn in the 1900s. After serving in the war, he moved to Switzerland and coached Servette in Geneva. Duckworth was an acolyte of Jimmy Hogan, one of English football’s most successful exports during the inter-war years. While Duckworth was at Servette, Hogan was coach of Young Boys of Bern. The English duo were joined by the Hungarian, Izidor Kuerschner, then coach of Nordstern Basel, in coaching the Swiss Olympic squad.
Despite Duckworth’s record with Servette – four titles across two spells in charge – Switzerland didn’t expect to do well in the Olympics, but they warmed up for France with three impressive wins, 3-0 against France, 2-0 versus Denmark and 4-2 against a strong Hungarian side, who were considered to be among the favourites for Olympic gold, along with Uruguay. In Montevideo, they expected a lot from their team after they had won the 1923 Copa America in style. The Olympics in France would have the biggest ever international football competition with 22 nations taking part.
The Swiss may have initially thought they wouldn’t last too long, but the Hungary result changed the Swiss mood, and in Max Abegglen, they had a forward who was considered to be among the best in central Europe in the 1920s. Abegglen scored against Hungary and during his career, netted 34 goals in 68 games for Switzerland.
It wasn’t Max Ableggen that grabbed the headlines when the Swiss kicked off their Olympic programme, beating Lithuania 9-0. Paul Sturzenegger, a 21 year-old forward from FC Zurich who had also caught the eye in that victory against Hungary, scored four times against the hapless Lithuanian defence. Sturzenegger became one of Swiss football’s most prolific strikers with an outstanding record of 426 goals in 458 games. His performances earned him a big move to Lugano after the Olympics.
In the next round, Switzerland took two games to beat Czechoslavakia. The first meeting ended 1-1, with the Czechs reduced to 10 men for the last quarter of an hour. At that point, the Swiss were trailing, but Walter Dietrich of Servette scored an equalizer in the 79th minute. In the replay, another Servette player, Robert Pache, scored the only goal to put Switzerland into the quarter-final against highly fancied Italy, managed by the legendary Vittorio Pozzo.
There was a hint of controversy in Switzerland winning 2-1, largely due to the Italians’ protests over Max Abegglen’s 60th minute goal, which they claimed was offside. Meanwhile, Uruguay were living up to expectations with their skilful and fast football. Uruguay had scored no less than 15 goals in their three games and they lined-up in the semi-final against the Netherlands. Switzerland would face Sweden in the other semi.
There was a chance that the Swiss might pull-out of the competition as their train tickets home were expiring. As mentioned, they did not anticipate being involved in the latter states of the Olympic competition and so booked a 10-day ticket. When they beat Sweden 2-1 to reach the final, both goals coming from Abegglen, it was announced that they might go home ahead of the play-off for the gold and silver medal. The magazine, Sport, launched an appeal in Switzerland, and money was found to make sure Teddy Duckworth’s team could meet Uruguay in the final.
The game played on June 9, 1924 at Stade Olympique, Colombes in Paris, attracted a 40,000-plus crowd. The Uruguayans were too strong and tricky for the Swiss and ran out 3-0 winners. Nevertheless, a silver medal exceeded all expectations and many people felt that they had demonstrated that they were the best team in Europe at the time. Switzerland, overall, won 25 medals in the 1924 games, seven gold, eight silver and 10 bronze.
From a footballing perspective, Switzerland found it hard to maintain the momentum. Their record over the following two years was far from convincing, losing 0-2 to Austria, 0-4 to Germany, 0-5 to Hungary and 0-3 to Spain. In 1926, they were beaten by five goals by the Netherlands and 1-7 by Austria. By the time, the next Olympics came around, in 1928, they were nowhere to be seen. Max Abegglen made his mark, though, and was the nation’s leading scorer in international football right up until 2001. They even named a club after him – Neuchâtel Xamax FCS, the Xam being Max Abegglen’s nickname.
As far as central European football goes, Switzerland were overtaken by the Austrians, Czechs and Hungarians, but you could say they were the forerunners. Olympic silver in 1924 is still the Rossocrociati’s greatest achievement.