Switzerland Can Dare To Dream
3:48 PM EST on November 16, 2022
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Though they have long knocked on the door, Switzerland has never been considered a true member of the elite circle of Europe's best soccer teams, with good reason. The Swiss are 1–6 in World Cup knockout games and have only ever advanced to the quarterfinals of the Euros once. Despite maintaining an impressive FIFA ranking through their long streak of consistent mediocrity, they have not done shit.
Well, they hadn't done shit until last summer. Switzerland seized their moment at Euro 2021, roaring back from a 1–3 deficit against the French to score two goals in the final 10 minutes of regular time, make it to penalties, then outshoot the French 5–4. That France team was at the height of its powers, led by Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kanté in midfield, and Switzerland should have been dead after Pogba scored a banger in the 75th minute. After his strike, Pogba looked confident that a win was inevitable, standing there and dancing and generally carrying himself with the swagger of a player who knows victory is assured. It was not. Switzerland fought with determination and vigor, scoring off an immaculate Kevin Mbabu cross, enduring the heartbreak of a goal ruled offside, and finally scoring in the 90th. It was a beautiful display.
They came back from a one-goal deficit against Spain in the quarterfinal, and though they lost, Switzerland has maintained its momentum since then. They were in Italy's qualification group and played a big part in keeping the Italians out of the World Cup. After a rough run without their best guys this past summer, they've beaten good Spain and Portugal teams in the UEFA Nations League. The Swiss are a well-organized team replete with veterans who have played together for almost a decade now. There is not much that can faze them, and their best players probably know this is their final chance to make a big World Cup run together. All of this, to me, makes them a very fun team to root for. They know exactly who they are, and they have everything to play for. They are underdogs who don't really feel like underdogs, and certainly don't play like it. They are never going to give up, even though they're in a group with the World Cup favorites.
Who Is Their Main Guy?
I felt horrible when Granit Xhaka was pulled in the first half of Arsenal's 2–0 win against Wolves this past Saturday. Xhaka is the heart and soul of Switzerland's team, and I couldn't imagine what the Swiss without Xhaka would look like. When I try to brainstorm what the particular characteristics of Switzerland are (toughness, surprising technical skill, an eagerness for violence), I realize I am mostly thinking of Xhaka. Thankfully, it seems he just had butt problems and he will be good to go in Qatar.
As an Arsenal fan, I have ridden the highs and lows of the full-bore Granit Xhaka experience. At first I fell for his physicality and insistent style. After watching opposing Premier League teams bully Arsenal for years, it was a thrill to cheer for an all-action midfielder who eagerly took on all comers and never gave up space for free. The problem was, Xhaka often took it too far and wound up costing his team by giving up fouls and penalties, and drawing an embarrassing number of red cards. He was named Arsenal's captain in 2019 only to lose the armband after he and the fans had a public breakup. That sort of emotionally charged incident tends to precede an exit, as it did in the case of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. It is hard to recover from that sort of thing,
Instead, Xhaka has worked to regain everyone's trust and is now a critical part of the top team in the Premier League. Most commendable of all, he has climbed back to the top of the mountain without sacrificing the fire that got him there in the first place—he hasn't drawn a red card in 10 months, which, with him, means something. Arsenal is stocked with high-skill players, and Xhaka is one of the main forces who keeps everyone moving at such a fast tempo. With Thomas Partey as cover, Xhaka has had an incredible season moving the ball, putting out fires, and, most impressively, scoring a handful of his trademark banger goals. Xhaka loves to pull up from distance, and he has a tremendous record of actually hitting his shots (he has three goals and three assist in the Premier League this year.) He kicks the ball so hard.
Xhaka is Switzerland's captain, though he was not always so certain about playing for the team. He was also eligible to play for Albania and Kosovo, and he once played in an international against an Albania team that started his older brother. When he plays, though, he shows up, and he has scored for Switzerland at each of the past two World Cups.
Who Is Their Main Non-Scoring Guy?
Manuel Akanji somehow plays for the best team in the world. I was surprised when Manchester City bought Akanji, as he seemed like more of an insurance policy than anything, though his talent is legit. Akanji is an incredibly well-rounded center back, excellent on the ball and pretty smart about staying in good positions. His career at Dortmund got off to a wonky start as he struggled to stay healthy and stop making critical mistakes at the worst times. He has always played for teams that want to dominate the ball, a style his calm passing has made him a central part of.
Switzerland have toggled between two of Akanji, Nico Elvedi, and Fabian Schär at the center back spots, though I would expect Akanji to earn the bulk of the minutes in Qatar. Most importantly of all, Akanji is shockingly good at multiplying numbers in his head in seconds.
Where's The Beef?
Which teams or players does Switzerland not like? Do Switzerland's players like each other? We investigate their potential enemies.
In the 90th minute of Switzerland's group stage game against Serbia in 2019, Xherdan Shaqiri capped off an impressive Swiss comeback by collecting the ball just past the halfway line, dribbling into the box, and calmly finishing with his left foot to secure the 2–1 win. He instantly made a two-headed eagle with his hands in celebration, the same gesture Xhaka made when he scored the equalizer earlier in the game.
The eagle gesture made by Xhaka and Shaqiri is a tribute to their Albanian roots. Both players have Kosovar-Albanian heritage, while young Ardon Jashari is also Albanian and veteran forward Haris Seferovic is Bosnian. The Yugoslav Wars are over, though they are far from resolved. Serbia still sees Kosovo as part of its territory, and Xhaka and Shaqiri hitting the eagle gesture against Serbia was a bold assertion of Kosovar-Albanian identity in defiance of that very claim. This goes so deep that even after Serbia beat Costa Rica in the 2018 World Cup, the country's foreign minister boasted about the win because Costa Rica was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo's independence. "The victory over the team of Costa Rica was one small, sweet revenge," he said. As it happens, Serbia and Switzerland are once again in the same group (Brazil is also in their group, just like in 2018), and they face off on the final matchday, probably for the right to advance to the round of 16. Tensions couldn't be higher.
Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode
Who is Switzerland's best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia's James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia's David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?
Everyone wants a piece of Noah Okafor. The Swiss winger ticks every box: he is young, at just 22 years old; he plays for a club that eagerly sells its cool young guys, RB Salzburg; Okafor was already a full international while he was still a teenager, and has proven himself on the biggest stage, with six Champions League goals to his name. He's a calm operator on the ball, and his most pronounced skill is his dribbling ability. Okafor loves to pin himself to the wing, isolate a fullback in as much space as the Salzburg tactical setup will allow, then flay him with a burst of speed and a couple slick touches.
Okafor seems like the type of player whose game will scale to a bigger league because he's more then just a dribbling machine. Salzburg demand a high intensity of their players and require everyone to press. Okafor has above-average physical skills for his position, and he's a menace winning the ball back in dangerous areas. He has also played with a veritable creative genius like Brenden Aaronson, so he's developed some very slick off-ball movement.
Fun Geographical Fact
Switzerland's "whole thing" is that it's mountainous, and bordered by a lot of countries. These two factors combine to make it one of the most linguistically interesting countries in Europe. Roughly five-eighths of the country speaks German, and the national anthem is written in German. The German-speaking population lives in the north and central parts of the country, while the western quarter is largely Francophone. In the southern valleys, Italian is the primary language, though in many mountainous pockets of the country's center, Romansh, a unique offshoot of Latin, is spoken.
Good Flag Or Bad Flag?
The Swiss flag, while mostly pretty boring, does at least get some credit for being an unorthodox shape. Love a square flag.
Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?
Notable Moment In World Cup History
Switzerland hosted the World Cup in 1954, and though they only wound up playing four games, they made the most of them. The Swiss scored and surrendered a combined 11 goals, an incredible achievement in producing entertaining soccer at great cost to themselves. The Swiss beat Italy twice and lost to England to set up a date with a killer Austria team in the quarterfinals. In Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva, under a punishing 104-degree sun, the Rossocrociati and Das Team produced the Hitzeschlacht von Lausanne, a profane masterpiece.
Somehow, the game remained scoreless for the first 15 minutes, though in the 16th minute, the Swiss scored the game's first goal, adding the second a minute later, and the third two minutes after that. Austria's keeper bungled two of them, and once Austria recovered from the shock, they ripped off an even more impressive goalscoring run. Between the 25th and 34th minutes, Austria put five past Eugène Parlier. Switzerland added a fourth and Austria's Alfred Körner missed a penalty. Austria scored two more goals in the second half, while the Swiss only managed one, and when the dust settled, Austria had vanquished the Swiss 7–5, which is still the highest scoring game in World Cup history.
How Can They Win The World Cup?
Despite Granit Xhaka starting the tournament off by drawing a red card against Cameroon, Switzerland are fresh for their group stage finale against Serbia, and a fresh and rested Granit Xhaka scores two goals before earning another red card. They finish second in the group, then play Portugal in the Round of 16. Motivated to achieve greatness in the absence of their captain, Switzerland mount a brave comeback from two goals down to tie it 2–2 then win on penalty kicks. A fresh and rested Granit Xhaka then leads them past Spain in the quarterfinals, using his imposing physicality and fresh legs to figuratively stomp Pedri en route to a 3–1 win and also literally stomp Pedri en route to a third red card. Motivated to achieve greatness in the absence of their captain, but more importantly, handed a lucky draw against the improbably overachieving Americans, Switzerland goads Aaron Long into his sixth and seventh own goals of the tournament and advance to the final. A fresh and rested Granit Xhaka plays all 120 minutes of a 2–1 win against an Argentina side that enjoys 80 percent possession.