Dynamism and power are two terms that immediately spring to mind while watching Stephan Lichtsteiner. Away from the pitch, however, the Juventus star, 31, comes across as a down-to-earth, modest individual.
The Swiss international has won over 70 caps for his country and was one of die Nati’s outstanding performers at the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups™ in South Africa and Brazil. After joining Juventus, Lichtsteiner wasted little time in capturing the hearts of the Bianconeri faithful, scoring the first-ever goal at the brand new Juventus Stadium in 2011. Numerous titles followed, but Lichtsteiner has also experienced disappointments during his time in Turin, not least in the 2014/15 UEFA Champions League final, when Juve went down 3-1 to Barcelona in Berlin.
On Saturday evening, Lichtsteiner captained Switzerland in their pulsating 3-2 UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying victory over Slovenia. The hosts had trailed 2-0 until the 80th minute, but staged a remarkable fightback to take all three points and a big step towards qualification for next year's tournament in France. In an exclusive interview with*FIFA.com *after the game, Lichtsteiner spoke about the newfound sense of optimism enveloping Swiss football, as well as explaining how he deals with the psychological demands of professional football.
*FIFA.com: First of all, many congratulations on being named Swiss Footballer of the Year. Just how much does it mean to you to win this award?
Stephan Lichsteiner: *Well, it’s obviously an individual accolade. In a team sport like football, winning an award like this is not as big a deal as a title, which you win as a team. Even so, the award is great recognition for my performances last year and in previous years. It’s always more difficult for a defender to win awards like these, which makes me even happier. It’s a great honour.
*You’ve been playing in Italy for seven years now, enjoying plenty of success along the way. The Italian way of life seems to suit you perfectly.
*Italy is one of the nicest countries in Europe and has everything you could wish for. You’ve got the ocean, the mountains, the lakes, great food and a fantastic lifestyle. I’m also a big fan of the mentality of the Italian people. They’re open and relaxed, perhaps more so in the south than in the north. They’re also extremely passionate about football, which is more of a tactical game in Italy. The emphasis is placed on perfection and that doesn’t always result in the sort of spectacle we’re used to seeing in other leagues. But you can feel how much the Italians love their football. Everyone has an opinion which they’re eager to put across.
*Another country that's incredibly passionate about the game is Brazil, where Switzerland played great football during the 2014 World Cup. Would you say this 'new' Switzerland side has grown in confidence under the guidance of Ottmar Hitzfeld and Vladimir Petkovic?
*Definitely! The Swiss national team has a lot to be proud of. Apart from EURO 2012, we’ve qualified for every major tournament since 2004. For a small country like Switzerland that shouldn’t be taken for granted. We’re on the right track and have plenty of talented players in our squad. Hitzfeld got the ball rolling when he took over, assembling a very young squad. That group of players has largely remained intact and continued to develop. When you know each other so well it gives you confidence and self-belief. In the national team you only see each other two or three times a month, which makes it difficult to work on some of the most important aspects of the game. But if you’ve known each other for so many years, these things go a little more smoothly. It makes everything a little easier.
I think the money in today’s game makes football superficial. The pressure that comes from everyone wanting to voice their opinion makes things even more difficult.
*Is it fair to say the team has developed a new identity?
*We express our identity through the quality of our game. The youngsters play without fear and with plenty of enjoyment. In terms of our technical ability we’re at a very high level, but as a team I feel we still have a lot to learn.
*What has Vladimir Petkovic changed since he took over?
*We’ve been working a little more on the tactical side of things than under Hitzfeld. The team has improved in that area. He’s a very good coach who prepares us a little differently for games, but he’s also enjoyed plenty of success with us and I’m sure that’ll continue.
*What do you is in store for Swiss football in the coming years? Would you say there’s still room for improvement at major tournaments?
*That’s difficult to predict. It always depends on who you’re playing against. Personally, I don’t think we had a great tournament in Brazil. There were many games where we weren’t able to play our best football. We were excellent against Argentina, but apart from that I don’t think we played to our full potential. Our objective should always be to reach the last 16 at a major tournament, if not the quarter-finals. It’s possible, but in order to do that we need a level of composure and a winning mentality that we have yet to fully develop. We need to improve and mustn’t settle for what we’ve managed to achieve so far.
*If you compare the Swiss team with world champions Germany or European champions Spain, what would you say is missing from the Switzerland side?
*Well, Germany and Spain are huge footballing nations with very big clubs. They have greater resources and even more quality in their ranks. They’re under pressure to win every game, which isn’t the case in Switzerland. We often go into games as underdogs, but we need to emerge from the shadows and set ourselves a new, even greater target. The EURO is a good chance to do just that. Smaller footballing countries like Denmark and Greece have already shown that lesser fancied teams are capable of winning the tournament. With the qualities we have at our disposal, it’s also a possibility for us.
Can you see yourself taking part at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, or will you call time on your international career after 2016?
I’m obviously just focusing on the EUROs at the moment. I’ll be 32, which is a ripe old age in football. Having said that, I’m in great form, I love training and feel I can continue playing at a high level. Psychologically I’m still highly motivated. My desire and enjoyment is as great as it ever was.
*That desire and enjoyment is plain to see. Despite your experience, were you nervous walking out into Berlin's Olympic Stadium for the Champions League final? What was going through your head that night?
*On the day of the game I wasn’t really that nervous anymore. I was pretty relaxed and was just incredibly excited about the final. I knew that in two hours it would all be over, one way or another. But I was pretty nervous in the week leading up to the game. You think about winning the title, everything revolves around that one game and you can hardly wait to get out there and start playing. We’d had a great season, having won two titles already, and were prepared to get our hands on the big trophy. Both the supporters and the players were desperate to make that dream a reality. *Juve *is one of the biggest teams in Europe, but still not quite at the same level as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Clubs like these reach the final on a regular basis. For me, however, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I knew it was now or never. I was therefore incredibly disappointed after the match. In hindsight, I can be happy with everything we achieved last season as a team. I’m also proud of my own performance. I played every minute of our 13 Champions League matches last season.
*Is it games like these that make football such a special sport in your eyes? What does football mean to you on a personal level?
*That winning mentality and the passion for what we do is the be all and end all. I play football because I love the sport so much and for the sake of playing football. I wanted to prove to myself that I deserve to play at this level. I want to test myself against all the best teams and achieve great things with my team-mates. I’m not really that bothered with everything that goes on away from the pitch. All the attention you receive as a professional footballer, the better lifestyle - that isn’t really that important for me. On the contrary, I think the money in today’s game makes football superficial. The pressure that comes from everyone wanting to voice their opinion makes things even more difficult. That’s why I always enjoy returning to Switzerland. I can be myself here. I’m not more special than others just because I’m a professional footballer.