Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder, but there are some things that even the most steadfast of contrarians would struggle to find attractive. One such example was the last-16 clash between Switzerland and Ukraine at the 2006 World Cup, a game so dull that dishwater would take offence at being mentioned in the same sentence.
What makes a great football match? There’s no objectively correct answer to that question, but ask 100 people and there are certain words likely to be mentioned multiple times: goals, end-to-end action, intensity, quality, drama, incident, controversy. Switzerland vs Ukraine was lacking in all seven departments.
“The tedium of much of this occasion should not detract from Ukraine’s achievement,” wrote Dominic Fifield in the Guardian. “[Their heart] was to be admired, even if it was occasionally exasperating to watch.”
The BBC echoed those sentiments, albeit in more diplomatic tones.
“In a tightly contested match both teams found it difficult to create clear openings in the penalty area,” read their match report, while a highlights package broadcast by ITV later that night skipped straight to the penalty shoot-out to “prevent the TV audience from taking further punishment”.
Even FIFA’s own technical report struggled to find a positive angle, describing a “scrappy affair devoid of highlights [with] too many misplaced passes by both sides [meaning] the game could never develop any genuine ﬂow.” Italy 4-3 West Germany this was not.
It was Ukraine who eventually emerged victorious after more than 120 excruciating minutes, Oleg Blokhin’s side triumphing in a penalty shoot-out which featured only a marginal increase in quality on what went before. As Fifield pointed out, reaching the last eight for the first time was a commendable accomplishment for the Eastern European debutants, but there’s an argument that both Ukraine and Switzerland should have been immediately expelled from the tournament for serving up such a horror show.
In hindsight, the group stage offered an indication of what was to come. These were two teams, it’s fair to say, who put great stock in keeping their sheets clean: Switzerland conceded zero goals in topping their segment ahead of France, Togo and South Korea, while Ukraine – despite shipping four against Spain – had shut out their opponents in eight of their nine previous encounters in 2006. The chances of the 45,000 spectators inside Cologne’s RheinEnergieStadion being treated to a spectacle for the ages were always on the slim side.
Even so, the first few minutes passed by without anything even remotely resembling an incident. As a manager, Johan Cruyff used to implore his charges to treat the ball as a friend; on that basis, the Adidas Teamgeist must have severely wronged all 22 players on show here. Neither side was able to retain possession for very long, with a flurry of hurried passes and sloppy touches giving way to what must be the earliest Mexican wave in the history of football.
Switzerland and Ukraine took it in turns to conservatively pass the ball around the back under little pressure from the opposition. Occasionally a deviant maverick would look to break forward and progress up the pitch – Swiss forward Hakan Yakin stood out as particularly nonconformist with regard to the prosaic patterns unfolding around him – but such missteps were quickly nipped in the bud as both outfits resumed their joint endeavour to cure insomnia. This, it soon became clear, was an unwelcome case of resistible force versus resistible force.
Ukraine captain Andriy Shevchenko saw his diving header ricochet off the crossbar and Switzerland striker Alexander Frei also hit the woodwork with a well-struck free-kick, but those were the only moments of note in a first half devoid of meaningful action. The 15-minute interval brought brief respite, but it was obvious from the early stages of the second period that flying Ukrainian teacups and blasting Swiss hairdryers had been absent from the two dressing rooms at half-time. Both sides, it seemed, were perfectly happy with how the opening 45 minutes had played out.
Ukraine started the brighter after the break but failed to test Pascal Zuberbuhler in the Switzerland goal, with Andriy Voronin’s speculative long-ranger the only time the Basel glovesman was called into action before the hour mark. Not that the Swiss fared any better: the first time they tested Ukrainian goalkeeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy was an overhit free-kick which was drifting well wide of the target anyway. “This is bloody awful,” sighed subtlety’s Mick McCarthy, cursing his luck at being placed on co-commentary duty for the evening. Why not tell us what you really think, Mick?
Anyone hoping the Fat Lady would bring an end to the suffering by breaking into song before extra time were disappointed to discover she had long since dozed off. The final chance came as early as the 75th minute, when a flicked header from Ukraine’s Andriy Husin sailed narrowly wide of the far post after Zuberbuhler had flapped unconvincingly at Maksym Kalynychenko’s corner. After that, nothing.
This was far from the only World Cup knockout tie which featured a drop-off in intensity in extra time, but no other game has started from such a low base. Tranquillo Barnetta was the only player to receive a yellow card in two hours of what can only loosely be termed football; a dearth of quality can sometimes be excused, but Switzerland and Ukraine didn’t even have the decency to give us a bit of needle.
And so to penalties, where the contest threatened to descend into total farce after Shevchenko and Marco Streller missed the first two spot-kicks. “Is anybody going to score in Cologne tonight?” Guy Mowbray asked, clinging ever tighter to his sanity. McCarthy, half-joking at best, suggested tossing a coin to decide the winner.
Ball was finally introduced to net soon after, the 21-year-old Artem Milevskiy showing great nerve to coolly convert a Panenka and edge Ukraine ahead. Barnetta then blazed his effort against the bar and Serhiy Rebrov made no mistake, before Ricardo Cabanas’ miss left Switzerland on the brink. Up stepped Ukraine right-back Oleh Husyev, whose emphatic finish sent his country into dreamland and, more specifically, the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Switzerland, meanwhile, became the first team in the tournament’s history not to score a single penalty in a shoot-out and the first to exit the competition without conceding a goal.
Part of the joy of football lies in the unknown, the utter ignorance of what you’re going to get when you arrive at the stadium or turn on the television. It wouldn’t be as fun if every game was a 4-4 thriller and, as James Dart wrote in the Guardian, there’s a sort of “masochist intrigue” to this type of match. It could even be argued that the two teams did everyone a favour, reminding us that entertaining encounters should be cherished whenever they come around. You need the lows to truly enjoy the highs.
So while it’s true that Ukraine 0-0 Switzerland was the dullest, most uneventful game in World Cup history, we should still be thankful it unfolded as it did. Let’s just hope there isn’t a repeat in Russia this summer – once in a lifetime is more than enough.