- *Switzerland fifth in the World Ranking, their highest-ever placing *
- * * Comfortably leading their group in World Cup qualifying
- * * *"We can be proud of our football" *
Since September last year, 55 European nations have been jostling for a ticket to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Each of them have played six matches so far but only two countries have picked up the maximum 18 points on offer. That reigning world champions Germany are one of that all-conquering duo will come as no surprise, but the other team is likely to raise a few more eyebrows.
Switzerland have not lost for more than a year (not including the Round of 16 defeat to Poland on penalties at UEFA EURO 2016), and have earned nine victories and three draws since a 2-1 reverse against Belgium at the end of May 2016.
Little wonder, then, that* Die Eidgenossen* have broken into the top five of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for the first time, leaving former World Cup winners such as France (9th), Spain (11th), Italy (12th) and England (13th) in their wake.
"There's been a great deal of investment in training, including training the coaches, and a lot of work as been done at youth level," said Vladimir Petkovic shortly before taking over as head coach of the national team in summer 2014. "Obviously in a country this small you might get a crop of players that doesn't quite click, or one that is more or less talented. But with a willingness to improve things, we can be positive about the future." Three years on and it is clear that his optimism was well founded.
However, success was by no means a foregone conclusion, as a period of upheaval ensued following the decisions of coach Ottmar Hitzfeld and captain Diego Benaglio to step down after Brazil 2014. "The core of the team stayed the same and a couple of young players came through," recalled Xherdan Shaqiri, one of the side's key figures. "We've got a great mix of experienced players and youngsters. It's a team that will bring a lot of joy to Switzerland fans."
The momentum gained from reaching the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup, where they were eliminated by a 1-0 defeat to Argentina, helped Switzerland qualify comfortably for last year's continental showpiece, where they were knocked out at the same stage. And now the team are firmly on course to reach Russia 2018.
"Most of our players are still very young," said former Switzerland goalkeeper Pascal Zuberbuhler, who played 51 times for his country, in an interview with FIFA.com. "These impressive players are all playing in the biggest leagues in Europe and show their quality on a daily basis. We have no reason to fear any other national side. Our team got off to a great start in World Cup qualifying, especially after beating Portugal. The head coach is leading them in the right direction. If they can keep working as well as they are now, then big things could be in store in the future."
Switzerland's team is packed with several top-quality players with proven ability on the international stage, such as goalkeeper Yann Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach), Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus) and Shaqiri (Stoke City), as well as FIFA U-17 World Cup 2009 winners Granit Xhaka (Arsenal) and Ricardo Rodriguez (AC Milan). They are complemented by ambitious youngsters such as Breel Embolo (Schalke).
"Projects were implemented at the right time, namely in the 1990s, that supported youth development, and they did a really good job," said Jakob Kuhn, Switzerland's head coach between 2001 and 2008, in an interview with *FIFA.com *a few years ago. "Not only were we envied the world over, we were also constantly asked by people from different countries how a nation as small as Switzerland could compete in international football. Obviously there are a number of people responsible for our success, but we should be proud of our football."
Switzerland now have their eyes on six more points in upcoming qualifiers against Andorra (on 31 August) and Latvia (3 September). They have the chance to secure a fourth consecutive World Cup appearance, and 11th in total, when they conclude their campaign against Hungary (7 October) and in Portugal (10 October).
Should they succeed, Switzerland can undoubtedly allow themselves to feel an extra touch of pride.