Exclusive: Reto Ziegler - Tottenham years, Harry Kane and Switzerland’s World Cup chances
For most young footballers, the Premier League is the pinnacle of club football.
The lure of some of the world’s top teams, top stadiums and top players is enough to turn almost anyone’s head, and many have – and many more will – try to crack one of Europe’s hardest leagues.
At 18 years of age, Reto Ziegler left his native Switzerland behind for the big lights of London.
The youngster had worked his way through the Grasshopper youth system, breaking into the first-team at just 16 before going on to make over 40 appearances, and all of a sudden he was big news.
It was Tottenham – and the then-Tottenham sporting director Frank Arneson – who pushed hard to bring him to White Hart Lane, managing to steal him away from Grasshoppers prematurely.
During the 2004-05 season – and under the guidance of both Jacques Santini and his replacement manager Martin Jol – Ziegler instantly thrived, making a name for himself as an exciting left-midfielder and cementing his place in the Spurs first-team with 31 appearances in all competitions.
His exciting attacking play endeared him to the fans, and his youthful energy was infectious.
It was during this period that he earned his first call-up to the Switzerland national squad – just reward for a sparkling season – and he made his international bow against France in March 2005.
Whilst the 32-year-old’s career hasn’t quite managed to maintain this upward trajectory – over 17 years, Ziegler has played his football across seven countries and featured for sides such as Sampdoria, Fenerbahce, Lokomotiv Moscow and native FC Sion – Spurs remains firmly in his heart.
Speaking exclusively to The Boot Room about his career, Ziegler said:
“Of course, I am still a fan of Tottenham. I was a fan of Tottenham before I joined and I am still.
“There has been a lot of big changes there so I don’t have any team-mates anymore who play with Spurs. But I always follow them.”
When Ziegler arrived at Spurs, it’s fair to say things were a little different to what they are now.
In his first season at White Hart Lane, the Lilywhites fell short of their European objectives and limped to a ninth-place finish, being knocked out in the quarters of both the FA and League Cup.
For a squad that contained fresh, young English talent in the likes of Paul Robinson, Michael Brown, Michael Carrick, Ledley King and Jermain Defoe, as well as the experienced heads of Frederic Kanoute and Pedro Mendes, it was a hugely disappointing return considering pre-season potential.
However, fast forward little over a decade and Tottenham are in another world.
Whilst the feeling of disappointment experienced by the 2004-05 side will no doubt currently be lingering around the white side of north London following their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United last weekend – their eighth semi-final loss in a row – progress has been huge.
Unless a dramatic late-season collapse ensues from this point forward, Mauricio Pochettino’s side look poised to finish in the top-four for the third season in a row, securing Champions League action.
The fact that the Argentine masterminded his side to top Group H – the so-called Group of Death during this year’s edition – tells its own tale, and Spurs have every reason for encouragement moving on.
During Ziegler’s brief stint at Tottenham, he could have only dreamt of dicing with the European giants of Real Madrid and Juventus, and he reflected on how far Tottenham have come in 13 years.
“I know it is a fantastic team that they have, and they are playing Champions League. When I was there our goal was to play in Europe so I am pleased for Daniel Levy and the owners.”
The FC Dallas centre-back also admitted that he is a long-term admirer of current Spurs boss Pochettino, lauding him for the impact that he’s had since arriving from Southampton in 2014.
“Of course [I would want to play under his management]. He is one of the top managers in England but also the world. Of course, why not?
“I hope Tottenham keep him because I know there is a lot of interest for him.”
Ziegler’s time in England, whilst short, extended further than just White Hart Lane though.
During his second year in the Premier League, he was loaned out to Wigan mid-season, where he made five starts and five substitute appearances as the Latics finished tenth – their best ever return.
He also came on for the final 18 minutes of the 2006 League Cup final defeat to Manchester United, an experience that the 32-year-old still remembers fondly to this day.
“That was really good. I was on loan from Tottenham. I was at Hamburg in Germany but they did not let me play as much as I wished so Tottenham sent me to Wigan and it was fantastic.
“Paul Jewell was the coach, we passed Arsenal in the cup and went to the final against Manchester (United) and also in the league we had a few nice games. It was a nice experience for me.”
Despite only making a handful of appearances for Wigan before being recalled back to his parent club in London, Ziegler reserved high praise for Jewell’s impact on his career as a young footballer.
“I have great memories. Paul Jewell was a fantastic coach for me.”
Whilst his time in England was short and sweet, it symbolises a memorable period for Ziegler.
As well as earning his first major exposure as a professional, his impressive debut campaign at Tottenham caught the eye of the then-Switzerland national coach Jakob Kuhn.
At the age of just 19, he was awarded a spot in the Swiss squad for World Cup qualifiers against both France and Cyprus, being given his full debut in a battling 0-0 draw with the 1998 FIFA World Cup winners at the potentially daunting Stade de France – no mean feat for someone making their bow.
Since that day, Ziegler has represented his country 35 times over 13 years.
This is a period that has spanned inclusion in the previous two World Cup squads and, although he won’t be in Russia for his third tournament, he insisted that he’ll be keeping a keen eye on his country’s efforts as they face up to Brazil, Costa Rica and Serbia in a competitively-looking Group E.
Switzerland currently sit – somewhat surprisingly – 6th in the world rankings, ahead of giants like France, Argentina and Spain, and Ziegler reckons they could be the dark horse of the tournament.
“I think they have a good chance. They play against Brazil, this will be the most important game. If we don’t lose that game, Switzerland will go through.”
A large part of Switzerland’s sustained success on an international level over the past few years has come directly from Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who became the 50th player to score a World Cup hat-trick when he achieved the feat against Honduras in 2014.
Whilst the former Bayern Munich talisman has struggled on a domestic front this season with his Stoke side facing relegation, his individual displays have often provided some rare moments of joy.
Ziegler believes that he could be the driving force in the summer.
“I am obviously a big fan of the way he plays and also he is my close friend.
“I know he is struggling with his team, so I wish they can stay in the Premier League and he can show what he can do on the field because he is, for me, the best Swiss player at the moment.
“He’s a guy who makes a difference. He’s the main player we have to create in Switzerland.”
It’s not just Shaqiri that has impressed Ziegler, either.
Whilst he was taking to the field alongside the likes of Defoe, Keane and Kanoute during his time at Tottenham, Spurs have the small matter of Harry Kane leading the line – and Ziegler admitted his admiration of the 24-year-old, believing that he could be the one to lead England’s summer charge.
“I am happy for England also because he’s a fantastic striker. He’s very effective in front of goal. Players like him you do not find everywhere so I am sure England will do really well at the World Cup thanks to him.”
Yet, whilst Ziegler will undoubtedly have a vested interest in how Switzerland get on when the FIFA World Cup gets underway in less than 50 days’ time, his priorities still firmly lie in domestic football.
There were rumours flying around in the Swiss media over the previous summer that Ziegler would potentially return to British shores at either Celtic or Leeds United, bringing his 16 years of experience from Europe to the dressing room, but he reiterated that these rumours were just that.
“You always hear of agents who call you but no, I never had something concrete on the table.
“Yes, I heard some names of teams but nothing really serious.”
Instead of sourcing a route back into the English game, Ziegler has a new challenge at hand.
The lure of Major League Soccer has grown exponentially over the past five years – with some of the world’s most decorated players already going over to see what the fuss is all about – and the Swiss international is the latest European to relocate over to America after signing for Texan side FC Dallas.
It’s fair to say, it is a case of so far, so good too.
After a shock two-legged defeat to Panama minnows Tauro FC in the CONCACAF Champions League signalled a disappointing start, both Ziegler and FC Dallas have responded in fine style to remain unbeaten in the Western Conference after six games, conceding just the three goals in 540 minutes.
Their defensive record – the best across the MLS – is testament to the partnership that Ziegler is growing alongside USA international Matt Hedges, providing solid foundations in the Dallas defence.
While the former Swiss international’s career may not have quite panned out in the way he wanted after the speed of his breakthrough at Tottenham, and in the Premier League, he’s more than content where he is now.
The signs are looking good for FC Dallas at present, and Ziegler will want to squeeze out all of that 15-year experience as his new side look to conquer the MLS for the very first time in their history.