This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 20 November.
The national team – called Nati back home – have gone about steadily closing the gap to the world’s best teams during the past decade. Some of the most important players, such as Granit Xhaka, Ricardo Rodriguez and Haris Seferovic, won the Under-17 World Cup in 2009. They now make up the spine of this team together with players who reached the Euro Under-21 final in 2011, including Yann Sommer and Xherdan Shaqiri.
Switzerland have been remarkably consistent in qualifying for major tournaments, only missing one, Euro 2012, in the past 16 years. They have started to qualify for the knockout phase on a regular basis of late, reaching the last 16 in three tournaments in a row before going one step further and making the quarter-finals at Euro 2020 last year.
They came back from 3-1 down against France to beat the world champions on penalties to reach the last eight, where they took Spain all the way to spot-kicks too, only this time they lost. However it showed how close they have come to the very best.
There are strong individuals in the team, such as Xhaka, Shaqiri, Sommer, Manuel Akanji and Breel Embolo, but Switzerland’s success in recent years is down to the collective. “We don’t have Ronaldos and Messis in the team, we only function when we work together,” the captain, Xhaka, says. “Playing against us is very uncomfortable.”
During the Vladimir Petkovic era – between 2014 and 2021 – the Swiss played dominant, possession-based football. Murat Yakin, who took over last year, has only made small adjustments to that plan of attack. The team now tries to be more unpredictable and, at times, play a direct style.
Switzerland finished ahead of Italy in the World Cup qualifiers, with a bit of luck, and have been in the Nations League top division since its inception in 2018. They go into the World Cup full of confidence although niggling injuries to players such as two of the goalkeepers, Sommer and Jonas Omlin, as well as the defender Nico Elvedi and the striker Ruben Vargas are a concern.
There were eyebrows raised when the former Swiss international Murat Yakin was given the task of replacing Petkovic in August 2021. At the time Yakin was coaching Schaffhausen in the Swiss second tier. But he has good pedigree as a coach, his biggest success going back to his time at Basel, whom he led to two Swiss titles in 2013 and 2014 as well as the Europa League semi-finals after victories against Zenit St Petersburg and Tottenham. He is considered a smart coach who has a lot of tactical knowledge and his charming demeanour is popular in Switzerland. As a player he represented clubs such as Grasshoppers, Stuttgart, Fenerbahce, Kaiserslautern and Basel but some felt he should have achieved more considering his natural talent.
Granit Xhaka is the undisputed leader of the team and has continued to be so despite some disagreements with the coach, Yakin, in the spring. The Nati captain missed the decisive World Cup qualifiers a year ago but has proved in the Nations League that he is indispensable to this team. The 30-year-old is arguably playing the best football of his career and certainly his best since arriving at Arsenal from Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2016. Another positive has been his increased influence going forward for his club side, something Swiss fans hope will continue in Qatar.
It is probably fair to say that Remo Freuler is the most reliable player in this Swiss squad. A coach’s dream, the Nottingham Forest player just never seems to stop running, wins a lot of challenges and closes down the space in front of the defence. He failed to make the breakthrough in Switzerland and surprised many when he moved to Atalanta at the start of 2016, but he developed beyond recognition to become a vital player for the Bergamo side. He has been at Forest since the summer and chips in with some important international goals, such as against the Czech Republic in the Nations League, his fifth strike in 48 appearances.
The Swiss FA has made its feelings clear, issuing a statement before the qualifiers even began, saying: “We have decided in favour of dialogue and against a boycott, and want to actively engage on the issues of human rights. We didn’t pick the hosts and want to use the time before, during and after the World Cup to campaign for respect for human and workers’ rights in Qatar when [the country] is under an intense spotlight.” The Swiss FA president, Dominique Blanc, is also a cofounder of Uefa’s human rights working group, which has made regular trips to Qatar to inspect the situation there. Defender and Mainz captain Silvan Widmer says: “We trust these people to try to make a difference. We are thinking about these issues. For me, the football is in the foreground but that does not mean we have forgotten about the other issues.”
It is called the Swiss Psalm and was composed in 1841 by Alberich Zwyssig, a Cistercian monk of the Wettingen monastery, using a text by Leonhard Widmer from 1840. The lyrics exists in four different languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. An English version’s first verse would read something like this: “When you come along in the dawn, I see you in the sea of rays, you, great one, glorious one! When the alpine fern reddens; pray, free Swiss, pray!” The anthem has not always been popular but can now be heard at many sporting events. Not all of the players sing along with many of those from a migrant background refraining, although all players have their hand on their heart during the anthem as a sign of respect and solidarity with their home country.
All-time cult heroes
Josef “Seppe” Hügi was the Swiss hero at the 1954 home World Cup, scoring six goals and finishing joint second in the Golden Boot standings (behind Hungary’s Sandor Kocsis, who got a remarkable 11). Three of the goals came in the quarter-final against Austria, which Switzerland still managed to lose 7-5. If we are looking for someone a bit more recent step forward Stéphane Chapuisat, the striker from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, who went on to have a hugely successful career at Borussia Dortmund, winning two league titles and the 1997 Champions League. Sadly, he rarely reproduced his club form for the national team but was on the scoresheet in the magnificent 4-1 win against Romania at the 1994 World Cup.
Christian Finkbeiner writes for Blick. Follow him here on Twitter.