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How Switzerland joined the World Cup seeded elite

December 2, 2013

GENEVA (AP) — There is one certainty among many possibilities offered by the World Cup draw on Friday: Most teams want to be in Switzerland’s group.

The unheralded Swiss team’s rise up the FIFA rankings has been rewarded with a guarantee of avoiding many of the top teams in the group stage.

Only Switzerland’s status demands a little explanation for fans who don’t recall that it hosted the 1954 World Cup.

The land-locked Alpine nation of 8 million people has arguably over-achieved in 21st century sports, but mostly thanks to Roger Federer, an America’s Cup-winning sailing team and, naturally, an array of skiers.

In football’s biggest tournaments, Switzerland has been a regular though low-key guest who typically leaves the party early.

At the 2014 World Cup, expectations come with having seeded status alongside host and five-time winner Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Uruguay and the fashionable teams from qualifying, Belgium and Colombia.

Switzerland’s rise to claim the eighth and final seeded spot above Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal is the true surprise.

Those three European powers are among 23 of the 32 teams awaiting their draw fate who could land in the Swiss group — though protocol will prevent many from stating publicly how much they wish for it.

“Let us not waste time nor energy for discussions like that,” Swiss Football Association president Peter Gillieron said in a statement to The Associated Press. “We have learned that no truth is to be found in such discussions. It is the pitch where you find the truth about football.”

There is the field and there is also FIFA’s always-quirky rankings system — and both factored into Switzerland’s rise during a 14-match unbeaten run that began on the eve of qualifying.

Like many of Switzerland’s young players, veteran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld was born elsewhere but is serving his adopted country on the international stage.

The German is best known for leading Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich to Champions League titles, yet played most of his career as a prolific scorer in the often-unheralded Swiss league, and coached three clubs there before ever occupying a Bundesliga dugout.

Switzerland has welcomed job-seekers and displaced people, and Balkans turmoil of recent years is reflected in Hitzfeld’s selections. Next June, his lineup will likely have more players counting Albanian as their family’s native tongue than French, one of the four official national languages.

Attacking midfielders Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka were born in Kosovo, but soon moved to Switzerland. Both were nurtured by FC Basel, which dominates the top league, and quickly left for Bayern Munich and Borussia Moenchengladbach, respectively.

This Swiss team does not conform to cliche, and the heart of its midfield — captain Gokhan Inler, Valon Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili — have Turkish and Albanian family roots and left the Swiss league at least six years ago.

At least Basel center back Fabian Schaer worked in a bank before turning professional and representing the nation of high finance, chocolate and luxury watches.

Actually, Switzerland’s surge to No. 7 in the FIFA rankings in October, for one month only and the only month that determined World Cup seedings, was a model of precision timing. (Seventh was the cut-off point because, as Brazil was exempt from qualifying, its ranking has consistently been lower while playing friendly matches which score fewer points in FIFA calculations).

Switzerland was unbeaten in its group — seven wins and three draws — so was sure to rank highly as more weight is given to recent results in the four-year formula.

Still, Italy and the Netherlands were also unbeaten and enjoyed recent tournament success. Italy reached the European Championship final last year and the Confederations Cup semifinals in June, while the Swiss missed both events.

How could Switzerland rise above Italy?

The simple answer is that Italy, its ticket to Brazil already punched, was punished for drawing its final qualifier against Armenia.

But the Italian football federation perhaps missed a trick by not harvesting ranking points in friendlies, where its fixture list was more difficult than it needed to be. Teams score zero for losses, and Italy was beaten by France, England and Argentina since Euro 2012.

Switzerland, however, beat Brazil in August and scored upset wins last year against Germany and Croatia.

When Hitzfeld saw his team beaten in South Korea last month, the No. 7 rank and World Cup seeding was already bagged.

About that qualifying group: In July 2011 when the draw was made in Rio de Janeiro, Switzerland’s No. 30 ranking left it in the pot of third-seeded teams with potential to land with Spain and France.

Instead, Switzerland lucked into a group where the top-seeded team was Norway — then No. 11; today ranked 54th — and Slovenia came from the second-seeded pot.

The debate about Switzerland’s true standing in world football will continue.

In February, UEFA will make the Euro 2016 qualifying group draw with seeding based on its own system which ranks only competitive matches, not friendlies.

Switzerland currently sits No. 15 in Europe — albeit above Belgium — and will look up to nine top teams which include the Italians, Dutch and Portuguese. But also World Cup-bound Greece, Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, who trail the Swiss in FIFA’s much-maligned formula.

Still, the idea of Switzerland being an established top-10 football nation might not seem strange one year from now.

Like Belgium, the Swiss see a potential generation for the ages, headed by Shaqiri and several of the 2009 Under-17 World Cup winning team.

“What counts for Switzerland is that we keep qualifying for the big tournaments,” Gillieron said. “Having done so in the most recent past quite regularly we shall stick to both our philosophy and our concepts.”

Of course, if the lavish World Cup draw ceremony puts Switzerland and Italy in the same group then seeding will have counted for little after all.

But if the Italians land with Brazil or Argentina, Spain or Germany, coach Cesare Prandelli might rue how the Azzurri played their hand.

And reflect that Switzerland — who could get a group with Greece, Algeria and Costa Rica — played by the rules, and played well.

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