GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland has built a reputation at recent tournaments as an underachiever making unlamented early exits. This young, hard-to-beat team can change that at the World Cup in Brazil.
The Swiss were seeded before the draw and landed in a group with Ecuador, France and Honduras. Like the French, Switzerland will arrive with an improving squad which has some experience of past World Cup failure, though with a swagger to suggest that won’t be a burden.
In the past two years, Switzerland has had wins over Brazil and Germany in friendlies and remained unbeaten through World Cup qualifying.
In the 1-0 win over Brazil last August in Basel, the Swiss showed their fans a winning mix of steely tenacity and arrogant skill which unsettled the World Cup hosts.
Boasting key attackers Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, this team is unlikely to repeat the dire 0-0 draws which led to Switzerland’s exits at the past two World Cups.
In 2006, Switzerland topped its group — tallying four goals in two wins and a draw — but couldn’t find the net in regulation, extra time or even in the penalty shootout during a second-round loss to Ukraine that became the subject for heavy criticism.
In 2010, the Swiss opened with a stunning 1-0 win over eventual champion Spain but then lost to Chile and was held to a 0-0 draw by Honduras when it needed to win by at least two goals to advance.
On June 25, Switzerland will again finish the group against Honduras, in the Amazon jungle city of Manaus. Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld seems too wise to make the same mistakes again in what could be his last competitive match before retirement.
Shaqiri was just an 18-year-old late substitute against Honduras four years ago. Brazil should be his time to shine.
Often used as an impact substitute by Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola, the Kosovo-born Shaqiri is unlikely to be troubled by the end-of-season fatigue which affects many Europe-based stars.
While Shaqiri seemed destined to be a star for his adopted country, some of his teammates were fast-tracked on the international stage when veteran forwards Alex Frei and Marco Streller opted out in 2011 citing abuse from home fans.
Hitzfeld turned to players who were maturing quickly. Switzerland won the Under-17 World Cup in 2009 and was runner-up at the 2011 Under-21 European Championship. The young players earned more tournament experience at the 2012 London Olympics.
Hitzfeld now relies on a 4-2-3-1 formation anchored by a midfield pairing selected from the Napoli trio of Gokhan Inler, Valon Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili.
Hitzfeld insists France is the favorite to win the group. Still, he knows Switzerland has the potential to prove its seeding and top-10 ranking is justified.