The longer the trek across the desert, the sweeter the arrival at the oasis.
Nine years after making his Switzerland debut, veteran striker Blaise Nkufo has finally established himself as a fully-fledged international – and a proven source of goals for a Swiss side on the road to South Africa.
Before the start of the qualifying campaign, Nkufo, born in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) but raised in Lausanne, was the dictionary definition of a national team nearly man. Unable to translate his fine form at club level – for Lausanne, Lugano and Luzern – to the Nati, he grew ever frustrated and, feeling that the then head coach, Kobi Kuhn, was not giving him an even break, he decided to opt out.
The self-imposed exile lasted five years (from 2002 to 2007) and even when he eventually agreed to a rapprochement with Kuhn, the fates were not kind, forcing him to withdraw from the Euro 2008 squad with a thigh injury.
Well into his thirties, his international future looked distinctly behind him. However, all was to change for the better following the appointment of Ottmar Hitzfeld as Switzerland’s new boss in the summer of 2008. Noting Nkufo’s goalscoring exploits in Holland with Twente – where he has topped the bill for the past half-dozen seasons – Hitzfeld quickly became a convert and would soon regard his front-line pairing with skipper Alex Frei as one of the cornerstones of the team.
In the qualifiers Frei and Nkufo each scored five times. But it was the latter who struck when the stakes were at their highest. He hit the winner in the group-defining 2-1 win in Greece, and was also decisive in the 2-2 draw in Israel, heading his team’s second goal.
“When Ottmar Hitzfeld arrived, everyone started with a clean slate,“ says Switzerland assistant coach Michel Pont. “From the word go, Blaise felt the coach had total confidence in him and responded almost immediately.
“Blaise is an extremely calm, discreet and thoughtful guy. Sometimes he thinks a little too much. He’s a perfectionist in the way he approaches his profession. It explains the consistency of his performances and why he is still going strong.”
Critics often claim he is slow, yet it has not prevented him developing into a Dutch league scoring sensation. Athletic, very strong in the air and with impeccable instincts in and around the box, he has over 100 Eredivisie goals in the bank, making him Twente’s top marksman of all time.
“I knew that if I kept on scoring at Twente, I would have an opportunity to rejoin the Nati,“ says Nkufo, a highly intelligent man who made sure he stayed in education to pass his high school baccalaureate and now loves to read philosophy.
“The age of 34 is young for a man but old in terms of football. This World Cup will be my first and my last. I’m very aware of it and must not let it pass me by.”