When the nations of the world gather around their television sets on Friday, supporters of those team not among the prestigious seeded groups will all be going through the same ritual. Fingers crossed, muttering under their breath, throwing prayers up to almighty Pazuzu: Switzerland. Switzerland. Switzerland. Truly, the World Cup brings people together.
Quite what the Swiss are doing in such elevated company is an interesting story. Up until recently, a team's seeding for the draw was determined by their performances at the previous two World Cups, and so the Swiss -- whose admirably consistent record in getting to World Cups is matched only, in recent years, by their admirably consistent inability to do anything once they get there -- would likely have been lumped in with the rest of the European plebes. But FIFA has rankings and it wants to use them, dammit! On October 17, when the pots were potted, there were the Swiss, perched carefully above the continents' more traditional powers of the Netherlands, Italy, and England.
How did they manage it? Well, either by cleverness or by happy accident the Swiss have managed to profit, relative to those other teams around them, from the peculiarities of FIFA's ranking system. To wit, in the year preceding October 17 they played slightly less football than everybody else, and were better off as a result.
A simplistic overview. A nation's ranking is calculated over the course of four years, with significantly more weight applied to the most recent year. Every international 'A' game played in a year earns a certain number of points for the teams involved, and those points are averaged across the year. The points for each team vary according to the result, the opponent, the global region, and, importantly, the status of the game. Competitive games are heavily favoured -- in Europe, a team is awarded 2.5 times more points for a competitive fixture than they would be for a friendly -- and this has the slightly-counterintuitive consequence that playing more friendlies in the course of a year can -- in fact, must -- drag down a team's average. In the final (and most important) year of the ranking period, Switzerland only played three friendlies. Italy, the Netherlands and England played six, five, and five, respectively.
This is explained in greater detail by Simon Burnton over at the Guardian with a focus on England, who were at the time ranked ninth and so missed out on Pot 1. These are, of course, fine margins -- Burnton makes the point that "had England held on to their half-time lead in Montenegro in March, or beaten Ukraine last month, a place in pot one would have been theirs " -- and grousing about the peculiarities of FIFA's system is practically a sport in its own right. Displaying the motivational skills for which he has since become renowned, Roy Hodgson once said that the moment he heard his Swiss side had climbed to third was the moment he knew they were nonsense. The ELO ratings are generally preferred by soccer statheads, and they place the Swiss 14th, tucked between the United States and Russia, a position that not only feels more accurate but also works as a handy illustration of the Cold War.
It should be said, however, that it's not only the system that the Swiss have played well, it's also the actual sport. Though Group E wasn't the trickiest -- their opponents were Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus -- they won seven and drew three of their qualifying fixtures, which is thoroughly decent form. When they've have played friendlies, they've done generally well, notching up recent victories over Brazil (1-0) and Germany (5-3). And, of course, they were the only team to beat Spain at the last World Cup, as fine and as funny a smash-and-grab as any non-big nation could hope for.
There is an air of positivity around Swiss football at the moment, thanks in large part to perhaps the last truly un-cynical pleasure left in the modern game; the emergence of a group of talented youngsters. They finished second in the 2011 European U21 Championship, losing 2-0 in the final to a Spain side featuring all manner of imposing names. Since then, Xherdan Shaqiri has found his way to the fringes of Bayern Munich's first team, and Granit Xhaka has moved on to Borussia Moenchengladbach. Both Albanian-Swiss stars came through at FC Basel, who have recently been making something of a nuisance of themselves in European competition and can still boast the wonderfully talented winger Valentin Stocker, and elegant centre-half Fabien Schar, who was once a banker but is now a target for everybody at the top of the Premier League.
For experience, you can throw in Stefan Lichtsteiner and Gökhan Inler (regulars at Juventus and Napoli respectively) and also Napoli's Valon Behrami. One can only imagine the psychological hold that the former West Ham ink-meister has over England's captain Steven Gerrard after this...
...which is, I'm sure we can all agree, an entirely relevant and wholly non-gratuitous way to end the article. Ultimately, the nation-that-didn't-actually-invent-the-cuckoo-clock probably aren't the seventh-best team in the world. But they're pretty good, all the same, and certainly capable of embarrassing an aristocrat. And that, when you think about it, is what we're all here to see.