Vladimir Petkovich’s improbable journey to the top of Swiss football has included stops as a player and manager all across Europe, including a stint working at a Roman Catholic charity.
The Panenka takes a closer look at the Switzerland coach.
Vladimir Petkovich‘s career took a hiatus when he spent five years working for a Christian charity. However, since he took the reigns of Switzerland’s national team in 2014, goodwill has not been so forthcoming. Despite Euro 2016 qualification, public opinion of the coach remains low, resulting in nonexistent expectations for an international team which has been in the rise over the last decade.
Petkovich’s first test has been to prove to the country that he has the ability to rise from behind the shadow of achievements left behind by former coach Ottmar Hitzfeld. The German led the national team for six years between 2008 and 2014, was a decorated manager and made lowly Switzerland a team to be reckoned with.
When Hitzfeld was winning numerous major titles managing Bayern Munich Petkovich was employed full-time in a shop run by the Caritas charity. He held the job from 2003 to 2008 while coaching and studying for his coaching badges outside work hours while based in Locarno, Italy.
Born in the former Yugoslavia, Petkovich enjoyed a playing career as a midfielder with FK Sarajevo before moving to Switzerland to play in 1987. After a brief spell in Italy he hung up his boots in 1999 and went on to manage clubs in Switzerland, Turkey and Italy’s Lazio, where he won the Coppa Italia in 2012.
Lazio’s owner Claudio Lotito told The Guardian in 2014 that the Caritas charity experience was the logic behind appointing Petkovich, saying he desired that the men out on the pitch “to be nourished spiritually.” Things later turned sour between the two after Lotito sacked the Bosnian when he learned the coach was negotiating to take the Switzerland post.
Hitzfeld was a master tactician. Enforcing a highly disciplined brand of football to great effect wining the Bundesliga twice and European Cup with Borussia Dortmund BEFORE they were fashionable. He then moved to Bavaria where he went on to win five Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich while adding another European Cup to his resume.
Hitzfeld’s reputation for his managerial acumen was tested when he took over the Swiss national team in 2008. Despite the challenge the German was successful in leading the side to successive World Cups. At the 2014 tournament in Brazil, Switzerland suffered a heartbreaking extra-time loss in the last 16 to eventual finalists Argentina. Hitzfeld retired from football all together after the tournament, handing the baton to Petkovic.
Upon taking over, Petkovic was aware he had some big shoes to fill. “I’ve obviously been closely following the national team of Switzerland and its evolution under the direction of Ottmar Hitzfeld,” Petkovic said in a SFA statement. “I am therefore aware of the legacy that I take, a well-established team with excellent prospects,” he added.
Like Petkovich, many of Switzerland’s players migrated from Eastern Europe, complicating linguistic and cultural unity on a team that represents a country that already has four official languages, German, French, Italian and Romansh.
Petkovich’s first task was to instill a sense of solidarity among the squad. To promote the togetherness of the squad, he demanded that players eat together at one table in an effort to avoid squad cliques driven by the varied ethnicity of the squad. He also banned the use of mobile phones from certain team events and mandated that players wear shoes, not flip-flops, at meals.
These seem like unnecessary changes of a coach trying to impose his leadership on the group of players who had already been making such great progress. Imposing a rule like wearing shoes at mealtimes just seems like a desperate attempt to assert authority. Furthermore, to the outside world, the Sarajevo born former midfielder looks out of his depth and as disrespected by his players as he is by the onlooking media.
Petkovich’s poor German language skills has posed problems in his media relations. The downside has an upside though, his roots in the former Yugoslavia have reportedly helped him forge connections with key players of Albanian heritage including Stoke City star Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka of Borussia Monchengladbach.
Critics surrounded the Switzerland coach when the side went 232 minutes without scoring in a string of qualifiers. The run of poor form led to an online poll on Swiss website 20Minuten where only 16 percent of fans said Petkovich was the right manager to lead Switzerland.
Under Petkovich, Switzerland have been released of the shackles of Hitzfeld’s safety-first approach. This is positive as it means we should see a more entertaining Switzerland than at the 2014 and 2010 World Cups. Sadly though, should Petkovich’s Switzerland be unable to make an impact at Euro 2016, he may well be searching for a new job in the Autumn. Especially if a new a coach with a similar reputation to Hitzfeld becomes available.
Switzerland were drawn along side hosts France, Romania and Albania in Group A and they should have enough quality to progress from the group. Even though confidence in Petkovich and expectations of his ability are low, Switzerland have become a little more accustomed to mixing it with the big boys.