Make or break time

A trip to Russia on the line for Dzemaili and Switzerland

With the Impact season over, midfielder Blerim Dzemaili is now focused on helping his country reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Finishing second of its group behind Portugal, even on points but with a lesser goal differential, Switzerland missed an opportunity to directly qualify when they lost against Cristiano Ronaldo and his countrymen a few weeks ago, in Lisbon. As one of the eight best second-placed teams in the UEFA zone, the Swiss now have a play-off, home-and-away series against Northern Ireland, who got the taste of an international tournament for the first time in 30 years at the Euros last summer, and will want to repeat the experience, this time on the biggest stage.

“We have to qualify, we have two very difficult games,” said Dzemaili to Impact Media before leaving Montreal. “Northern Ireland is not an easy team to beat. They qualified for the play-off, so I think the first thing for us is to manage to get in. Even if we were part of the last three World Cups, we have not qualified for this one yet.”

Northern Ireland finished 11 points behind a perfect German team in Group C and four points above the Czechs, averaging about a goal per game on their way to second place. They have also kept seven cleans sheets in their qualifying campaign, only letting in goals by Norway and Germany – though the Czech Republic, Azerbaijan and San Marino cannot be said to have a lot of firepower up front. The Norn Iron play with a dogged and disciplined style and are a tough ask on set pieces, and their support, especially at home, is rowdy and loud.

“That first away game will be very tough because they play very hard football, very physical football, and we have to be prepared for this,” said Dzemaili. “But we had 27 points during our qualifying campaign. I think we can manage to have two good games.”

The Impact Designated Player has represented Switzerland on the biggest stage, playing in the 2014 World Cup and even scoring a stunner against France during the group stage. He also represented Switzerland at the Euros in 2016, and was in the squad for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

“It’s a big honour, because you play for your country, you play for your people, for your family, and that’s every footballer’s dream,” said Dzemaili. “I think it’s a big, big honor.”

At 31, the Swiss international is having one of the busiest years of his career. He played Bologna F.C.’s Serie A season until he was loaned to the Montreal Impact, back in May, immediately becoming a permanent fixture with the Bleu-blanc-noir all the way to the end of the MLS campaign, but he is not done yet. 

“I will train with Bologna for 10 days. Then, I have the two games with Switzerland, and after that, vacation,” added Dzemaili. “I need a vacation, I’m starting to feel tired. It’s normal, after 60-65 games in a year and two months. It’s a lot for a player like me – it’s a lot for all players, I think.”