Swiss coach Kuhn stands alone in tough times
In face of the upcoming match against Turkey, Koebi Kuhn must strike a balance between coaching the team and caring for his wife who remains in a coma.10 June 2008
BASEL - Koebi Kuhn stood in front of the Switzerland bench, arms folded, concentrating on the action, as if he was watching just another game.
Only it was far from just another game.
He had waited years for this, the chance to coach his country's national team before the home fans in the opener of the European Championship, football's second-biggest event after the World Cup.
But just five days before Saturday's match, his wife collapsed in an epileptic fit and had what the Swiss Football Association described as an "acute loss of consciousness".
Kuhn never thought about taking any leave of absence and he returned to work Tuesday. While he stood on the field of St. Jakob Park during Switzerland's 1-0 loss to the Czech Republic, Alice Kuhn remained in a Zurich hospital, in an artificially induced coma.
Kuhn wouldn't say how difficult it must have been to concentrate on the match. When the question was put to him, it was intercepted by team spokesman Pierre Benoit.
"We are not going to comment on any private issues," Benoit said.
Kuhn said earlier in the week that he was "happy and relieved" that her condition had improved. He has been visiting his wife is the hospital each day, trying to balance his high-profile job with his life as a husband.
In the United States, coaches and athletes often speak of how family illnesses "put things in perspective." In much of Europe, such things aren't discussed publicly.
Czech Republic coach Karel Bruckner was taken aback and was even asked if he could imagine what Kuhn was going through.
"I am very sorry for my colleague," Bruckner said.
Switzerland's players certainly knew what Kuhn was experiencing. Coaches spend more time with their players than their families, and players become a support group in times of trouble.
"We wanted to win it for him because he's currently going through a difficult time," midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta said. "The disappointment is huge."
Switzerland's first native coach since the 1980s, Kuhn played 63 times for his country. He took over the national team in 2001 and qualified the Swiss for Euro 2004, where they failed to advance from the first round, and the 2006 World Cup, where they were eliminated by Ukraine in the second round on penalty kicks.
He announced nearly two years ago that he would leave after this tournament, and Bayern Munich coach Ottmar Hitzfeld was hired in February as his successor.
"Koebi is in an extremely tough situation," Hitzfeld said Friday.
Balding, with trim white hair, Kuhn looks more like a businessman than a coach. There is intense pressure of these managers, who tend to burn out far more quickly than bench leaders in other sports.
Switzerland, just 44th in the world rankings, is far from a football power but manages to hold it own among the second-level European nations. It's usually a centre of attention not for its play, but because it is where football's governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA, are located.
The Swiss feels honoured to co-host the 2008 tournament along with Alpine neighbour Austria. This is the first big tournament Switzerland has staged since 1954, when West Germany won its first World Cup title by defeating Hungary's "Magical Magyars" 3-2 in the final, still referred to as "The Miracle of Bern."
There was the usual pomp before the match, with 976 performers, some of stilts, some in traditional costumes. The stadium was filled with fans in red - the colour of choice for both Swiss and Czech fans.
There was much mass humming of "Go West," the Pet Shop Boys tune that was repeatedly played in South Korea during the 2002 World Cup. Supporters in the crowd of 39,730, repeatedly chanted "Hopp Schwiiz!" which translates to "Go Switzerland!"
How much of this Kuhn noticed was unclear. He looked pretty locked in, twisting in pain when his team failed to convert chances, throwing his hands up in despair at times.
At the end of the match, as players from both teams gathered in the centre of the field and talked, Kuhn started walking slowly to the tunnel at far end.
No one got close to him.
With his entire nation watching, he seemed very much a man alone.
[AP / Expatica]