When football becomes big news, the eyes of the world often need to turn to Switzerland.
Sometimes the FIFA HQ in Zurich feels more familiar than my own office with the amount of stories I’ve needed to cover there in my role as Al Jazeera Sports Correspondent. The most powerful man in that building and indeed world football is of course Swiss, Mr Blatter. And over in Nyon we find UEFA, that powerful continental governing body. Olympic football is run in conjunction with the IOC, based in Lausanne. As football reflects life, plenty of power and money is based in this landlocked, neutral, alpine country.
This has long been accepted.
But for the achievements of the national team, acceptance is not such a formality. In fact the level of sniping and dismissiveness around their World Cup seeding has given the Swiss national team more coverage than I can remember for many years.
And so everywhere from Italy to Iran to the Ivory Coast, Switzerland are being held up as a ‘good draw’ in the World Cup, the seed they all want to play.
No matter how neutral the commentator, the neutral nation was being held up as ‘the draw of choice’. And they have ended up with Ecuador, France and Honduras in Group E.
But before these nations party too hard it might be worth reminding ourselves what this Swiss team are actually about (and how good they really are)
First the reason for much of the surprise around their status.
The ‘problem’ started when Norway ended up in the European top seeds two years ago. Was this fair and proper? Yes. But did it cause an imbalance in qualifying groups? Yes again.
Switzerland’s qualifying group was the weakest in Europe, and yes, it was one of the weakest I’ve seen for many campaigns. They dropped just three points in a qualifying group with Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus. Bear in mind that Turkey and Ireland both finished fourth in tough groups, although I’d argue Group G, topped by Bosnia ahead of Greece, was not actually that much weaker that Switzerland’s.
Partly through the FIFA-ranking points they accrued for a highly successful qualifying campaign, Switzerland broke into the top-10 of the FIFA rankings. And not just the top-10. In the October rankings they were right up to seven. These were of course, the all-important FIFA rankings that shaped the World cup seedings. And so Switzerland joined the might of Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina, as well as the might-succeeds of Uruguay, Colombia and Belgium.
So that’s how the acquired their status. And raised eyebrows.
But now the reasons they should be more respected, if not exactly feared.
Firstly the main reason they reached seven in the rankings was a 14-match unbeaten run. There were victories over Germany and Croatia in there. This is consistency not a freak result.
Then there’s the coach Otmar Hitzfeld. Aged 64, he had vowed to retire after next year’s finals. Seven times a Bundesliga winner, does he strike you as a man who doesn’t know how to organise a football team?!
And most importantly the players. Look for superstars and you will be disappointed. Look for a team and you certainly have one. And like Hitzfeld many are playing for an adopted country having been born elsewhere.
Such as the talented midfielders Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, born in Kosovo. The Napoli trio of Valon Behrami, Blerim Dzemaili and captain Gokhan Inler can be a joy to watch. That’s the Napoli who are up in third in Serie A and challenging for Champions League qualification. Behrami and Dzemaili were born in the former Yugoslavia, Inler was born in Switzerland with Turkish roots and represented them at under-21 level. He is someone who could have a great World Cup in my view. I think they are missing a top class striker but will undoubtedly be well organised defensively.
And just how easy is it going to be to beat Switzerland at the World Cup. You may find it ironic that having written this piece I’m not tipping them to do well. My point is that they might and that you might be surprised by their recent World Cup record.
Do you know how many goals, not including penalties, Switzerland have conceded at the last two World Cups combined, bearing in mind it’s quite a feat for a nation of eight million to have made it both times? Your clue is they played seven games.
The answer is one. One goal. One solitary goal in seven games. When eliminated – via an epic failure to score in a penalty shootout – in 2006, they became the first team in World Cup history to be eliminated without conceding a goal.
It is too much to expect the Swiss net will not bulge in Brazil. And that they will still be there at the business end of the tournament.
But dismissing them as easy opponents. Hoping you draw them, play them and then inevitably beat them?
I wouldn’t be banking on that.
This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.