Insights & Stories Vladimir Petkovic: "You Have to Gauge the Mood"
Swiss national coach Vladimir Petkovic discusses positive energy, tough decisions, and the finals for the World Cup qualification.
You renewed your contract at the beginning of September for another two years. Congratulations! What made you decide to stay?
Both parties wanted to keep going. It's like a happy and lasting marriage. I also still see a lot of potential for the team.
What type of potential?
All types – technical, tactical, mental. My goal is to get a bit better every match. You can achieve a lot when work is fun and joyful for everyone.
What developments in the team make you particularly happy?
The friendships and positive energy in the group. By that, I mean the whole group, including our staff of about 50 people.
How do you create positive energy?
It's a long process, and of course mathematics helps. Every victory is incredibly important to a coach. It reinforces his ideas, and the players are also more willing to work on themselves.
Notably, the team isn't split into groups anymore. When you came on board, there were two camps – those who spoke Albanian and those who didn't.
You have to understand that this divide was mainly fueled by certain parts of the media. The fact is the group did lack positivity and cohesiveness. It was important to me that the right side of the table spoke to the left, and that everyone got closer. We worked a lot on that. The process began when I brought together a few representatives of each group to break the ice.
German national coach Joachim Löw once said: "We want to ensure that this team, which represents its country, also stands for something in the public eye. And that is only possible with players who act with integrity." Do you agree?
Absolutely. I demanded that from the very start. Only if you convey positive energy to the outside will you get it back. There's no doubt in my mind. And I think we are currently doing just that. We've improved our status among the fans, not just with our results but also thanks to our contact with them. After our open practice sessions, we spend about 30 to 45 minutes signing autographs and taking selfies with them.
Does the coach need to adapt to his team, or does the team need to adapt to its coach?
The coach needs to adapt to each and every player. After all, every player is different, or as I like to say: Everybody is the same, and somebody is even more the same. The coach has to be able to deal with it. At the same time, though, he can't be too wishy-washy. He needs to draw the line.
Do you involve the players? Do you want opposition?
I do speak with the players, individually and in small groups. They can tell me what they think. But speaking to the entire group? No, I doubt any football teams do that. It would be nice to arrive at that level. There are handball teams in France where the coaches place some of the responsibility on the players. They analyze, and discuss with the coaches before defining the tactics and lineup together. But that's such a long process. In a national team it's even longer than in a club...
Does a coach have to justify his decisions?
Sometimes he does. Not a lot, but if I feel that a certain drill or lineup isn't getting across to them. I listen to my gut. You have to gauge the mood – that's really important.
What was your toughest decision as a national coach?
Personnel decisions where you can't include a hard-working player anymore. You have to be totally honest and have a one-on-one discussion, if possible. At the same time, it's important to me that, as the coach, I don't decide against a single player. I always decide in favor of positive momentum and the team's success.
You're always coming up with new guys such as Freuler, Zakaria, and Akanji. When is a player ready for the senior national team?
When he plays better than anyone else who's played at a certain point in time. And when he sees the potential for development to make our team better in the future.
You're spoiled for choice in the goalie slot. Switzerland has some strong players with Sommer, Bürki, and Hitz. When do you switch your goalie out?
When number two is better than number one. Period. And at the moment, the positions are clear. Period. I say this unequivocally, because the goalie position above all else needs to be clear before we can have composure and confidence on the team.
Switzerland has always had a problem scoring goals. Is it a question of mindset?
We've given away a lot of potential goals in recent matches, that's true. But our track record isn't that bad. For the World Cup qualifiers, we made more goals than three-quarters of the teams. The best part for me is that 13 different players have already scored. Not many teams can say that, which makes us more unpredictable than others.
Instant replay will be used for the first time at the 2018 World Cup. Is that a good thing?
Absolutely. I'm all for bringing football into the modern age, and think instant replays are a good thing in general. But the processes need tweaking. In Italy, where instant replays are used in the championship, some matches take over 100 minutes. Maybe we need to start using net match time, 60 or 70 minutes, like in ice hockey. I also think each team should have two opportunities in each match to ask for an instant replay – like the hawkeye in tennis. I also think the decision made by the referee on the instant replay should be shown on the jumbotron. It would provide clarity in the stadium and keep everyone calm.
How does the booming transfer market affect Swiss football?
The transfer fees stipulated in the contracts are probably higher. And I'm afraid that players will give in to financial temptation more quickly and go to another country before they have made a name for themselves in the Super League. Maybe in Europe we should think about a salary cap, like they have in US sports.
In October, there will be a final against the strong teams of Hungary and Portugal for the World Cup qualification. How tricky will this be after the series of wins against six easier opponents?
It won't be. Our wins give us confidence. We're close to euphoria. The fans love it. I may need to take it down a notch with the team, because we can't be too hyper going into these matches. We need cool heads and clever minds now.
Switzerland just needs two draws. Can you steer a team towards a draw?
We can't. Look at the table! (Laughs) We have shown that we always want to win. And we will continue to play in this spirit.
Vladimir Petkovic (54) has been the Swiss football coach since the summer of 2014 and recently renewed his contract until 2019. He took Switzerland to the 2016 European Championship and in statistical terms, he is the most successful national coach in history with 65 points in 32 matches. Prior to this, Petkovic, who is a dual citizen of Switzerland and Croatia, coached for Lazio Rome (Cup victory), Samsunspor as well as FC Sion, YB, and various clubs in Ticino. Petkovic is married and is the father of two grown daughters. He currently lives in Locarno.