By Brian Homewood
BERNE, April 29 (Reuters) - A young side drawn mainly from immigrant backgrounds, Switzerland's World Cup team is about as far removed from the stereotyped image of the Alpine nation as it is possible to get.
While the Swiss are often regarded as reserved, diplomatic and predictable, their national side is a feisty outfit with a surprising amount of flair.
Stephan Lichtsteiner and hard-tackling captain Gokhan Inler never shy away from a battle while the impish skills of Xherdan Shaqiri could make him one of the finals' most exciting players.
The make-up of the team has changed beyond recognition over the past few years as the national federation, which runs one of Europe's most impressive youth development programmes, has tapped into the potential offered by Switzerland's immigrant communities.
More than half the squad hail from immigrant backgrounds. Many are from families who fled to Switzerland from Kosovo during the 1990s while midfielder Gelson Fernandes was born in the Cape Verde Islands and Johan Djourou in Ivory Coast.
Although they missed out on Euro 2012, when the team was in a transitional period, Switzerland will be going to their third successive World Cup, an excellent record for a small country especially considering that football is less popular than ice hockey and Alpine skiing.
Under former Bayern Munich manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, their prospects are better than at the previous two tournaments and they should be a far more entertaining proposition than their dour, defense-orientated predecessors.
They open their campaign against Ecuador in Brasilia on June 15, then meet France in Salvador on June 20 and Honduras in Manaus on June 25.
As nearly all of their players are based in top European leagues those matches will not unduly faze them.
Fullback Lichtsteiner is at Juventus, Napoli boast the midfield trio of Inler, Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami and the Bundesliga contingent includes Djourou, Shaqiri, goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and midfielder Granit Xhaka.
Switzerland may have problems at the back, however, where Philippe Senderos and Djourou have struggled for form at their clubs.
They are prone to lapses, such as squandering a three-goal lead in a 4-4 draw at home to Iceland, but young forwards such as Josip Drmic, Admir Mehmedi and Haris Seferovic give them bite.
Hitzfeld's team went through an admittedly easy qualifying group unbeaten and, with England, are one of only two teams to have beaten Brazil since Luiz Felipe Scolari took over as coach in November 2012.
Even if they go out in the first round, Switzerland should certainly provide more entertainment than in 2006, when they became the only team in World Cup history to be eliminated without conceding a goal, or 2010 when their three matches produced just two goals, one for and one against.
Going even further back in time, Switzerland acquitted themselves well enough when they took part in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
Although they lost 3-0 to Yugoslavia in their first match they held Brazil to a 2-2 draw in their second game at Sao Paulo, a result which prompted some fans to attack the Brazilian coach Costa after the match, incensed that Brazil had allowed the Swiss a late goal to deprive them of victory.
The Swiss then beat Mexico 2-1 in their final game and were officially placed sixth at the end of the tournament, missing out on the final pool which ended with Uruguay beating Brazil 2-1 in the decider.
(Reporting By Brian Homewood; editing by Robert Woodward)
- Sports & Recreation
- Xherdan Shaqiri
- Johan Djourou
- Stephan Lichtsteiner