By Si Steers

THE SWISS are a nation famous for Cheese, Chocolate, and Banks and perhaps a little less well known for football, but it is a culturally rich and wealthy country that boasts a quirky and unique significance in world affairs. Switzerland is probably most well-known for being a world financial centre, Zurich and Geneva are homes to many financial institutions that are famed for being the most secretive, as portrayed recently in Martin Scorsese’s the Wolf of Wall Street (albeit with some creative license).

I have always thought of the Swiss as a very serious nation, the clinical efficiency of one it its greatest sons and arguably one of the best sportsman to ever grace the planet, Roger Federer, has always been a characteristic that I have associated with Switzerland. Perhaps that comes from its location in the world. Switzerland is bordered by Germany (clinical efficiency specialists), Italy, France, Austria and Liechtenstein giving it a very diverse mix of neighbours.

The main language in Switzerland is German, but French and Italian are also widely spoken. The Swiss football league also includes teams from Liechtenstein, Germany and Italy – it is a country that takes great influence in its identity from the cultures that surround it.

Switzerland is often seen as a neutral country, and is the birthplace of the Geneva Convention; which of course was the peace treaty that followed the Second World War. Switzerland was able to escape invasion during the war by declaring its neutrality.

The Swiss have a large catholic population, and the Swiss Guards have been the long standing guardians of the Vatican and protectors of the Pope. The Swiss Guards are the military arm of the Vatican and anybody that has visited Rome will have likely seen the ceremonial costumes they wear whilst on public duties. But behind the pomp are some of the best trained and most loyal soldiers on the planet.

My perception is that Swiss take a cultural lead from the Germans in many aspects of life, but what makes it such an interesting country is that it has a more quirky, interesting edge to it that is influenced by the flamboyance of the Italians and French, as well as the Alps that are a big part of the Swiss identity.

Football in Switzerland is a popular sport, and the Swiss national team does not often fail to qualify for the big tournaments. Despite its backdrop of the scenic Alps the Swiss do have a thriving football league which boasts some well-known teams that regularly compete in European club football.

The Swiss Football League

FC Basel and Grasshoppers are probably the most well-known club teams in Switzerland, it is the big two that are often the country’s representatives in European football and provide most of the players to the National team. FC Basel will be well known to Liverpool fans with a good memory for the 3-3 draw the clubs played out in the Houllier season of 2002/03 in the Champions League.

One of Switzerland’s greatest ever players, Stéphane Chapuisat graduated through Young Boys and then moved onto Grasshoppers where he scored 39 goals in 61 games before landing in Dortmund to score 102 goals in 218 appearances. Chapuisat also played over 100 games for his country scoring 21 times.

Another Swiss great, Alexander Frei came through the ranks at Basel where he scored 73 goals in 103 games before moving to Dortmund, where he scored 34 in 74. Frei was prolific at international level scoring 42 in 86.

The National Side

The National side has been successful on the world stage given the size of the country and strength of its league. It regularly qualifies for the World Cup and European Championship, having only missed out on two major tournaments since 2000. The Swiss have reached the World Cup quarter finals three times, but not since it hosted the event in 1954. Switzerland’s best performance in a tournament was winning a silver medal in the 1924 Olympics.

Despite no real success at a senior level, the Swiss did win the 2002 u17 European Championship and the 2009 u17 World Cup; that is a good indicator the standard of the talent pool in Switzerland is comparable with other, larger European counterparts.

The Hodgson Era

So, in a country that speaks multiple languages, has years of experience (in banking and protecting the Pope), and is probably one of the most neutral and least offensive on the world stage, it’s little surprise that Roy Hodgson landed there in 1992. Hodgson actually did a brilliant job with the Swiss, leading them into the 1994 World Cup and the 1996 European Championships, guiding them to third place in the FIFA rankings. Perhaps international football is his forte.

What To Expect In Brazil

If you look back at past the Swiss are usually a bit of an unknown quantity at big events, but under the guidance of Ottmar Hitzfeld who will be leaving the job at the end of the World Cup, they may be able to repeat the trick of 2010 where they beat the Spanish 1-0 in the opening group game. Although they didn’t qualify from the group in the end, they did come close to causing a huge upset.

The Swiss have a mix of age and experience in the squad, including three players from Rafa Benitez’s Napoli side, including Captain Gohkan Inler. One of the biggest problems for the Swiss is going to be scoring goals; the strikers are all under 24 and have only scored a combined 8 goals. It is going to be tough for them to make an impact in Brazil.

The one name that is likely to be familiar to English football fans is Philippe Senderos, the former Arsenal defender who now plys his trade for Valencia.

But although the Swiss don’t have many stand out superstars in the squad, they have proven themselves a tough nut to crack at big tournaments in the past. They may not be in the frame for the big prize, but they are the kind of team you wouldn’t want to play if you reach the knockout stages.

Hitzfeld has a very good pedigree with Dortmund and Munich and will want to bow out on a high, and he has a squad that is capable of being difficult to beat. The Swiss do have one star player that can be the difference in tight games and is perfectly suited to the counter attacking formation favoured by Hitzfeld, and he is my…

One To Watch

Xherdan Shaqiri is a 22 year old that plays for Bayern Munich having graduated through FC Basel. Last season Shaqiri played over 43 times for Bayern scoring 10 goals from midfield. Shaqiri is already the second highest scorer in the Swiss squad with 8 goals to his name.

Shaqiri made a name for himself by creating both goals in Basel’s 2-1 defeat of Manchester United in 2011, with his performances earning him a big money move to Munich.

Shaqiri is very much in the modern winger mould – he is left footed and very quick both with and without the ball. He has an eye for goal and will likely be the catalyst behind the Swiss attacking threat in Brazil.

Another one to watch is 21 year old midfielder Granit Xhaka who has made the breakthrough in Germany with Borussia Mönchengladbach this season and has 4 goals in 22 appearances for his country.

Prediction

There isn’t a lot to fear in Switzerland’s group of France, Ecuador and Honduras and they are more than capable of finishing in the top two. The knock out stages is more unpredictable, but the Swiss defend very well and should be aiming to for a quarter final berth which would equal the best performance from a Switzerland side ever at a World Cup.

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