It starts with a sudden lowering of the voice. Two quick glances to either side, a furtive slug of the glass, and the mysteries are revealed. Never mind the hand of Thierry Henry and the referee who was told to see nothing. The real European World Cup conspiracy, the one which – like all the very best of its kind – is also the most obvious, is Switzerland’s presence at the finals in South Africa.
With the sound of crackling tin-foil seemingly echoing in every corner of the room, the initiation continues. Driven by a noxious cocktail of commercial and patriotic interests, Zürich–headquartered FIFA, under its Swiss president Sepp Blatter, were determined to make sure that Switzerland would have no problems in qualification. As a result, the side was deliberately placed with Greece, Israel, Latvia, Moldova and Luxembourg in a group so easy that the Swiss could even afford a home defeat to the latter team and still finish top.
This is hardly the first time, either. Forget whispering, slam down your glass and yell about how Switzerland got to Germany in 2006. A qualifying group of France, Israel, Republic of Ireland, Cyprus and the Faroe Islands? It’s enough to make a man need another drink.
All very convincing. Unfortunately it doesn’t explain how Switzerland have ended up in Group H with tournament favourites Spain and a Chile side which came second in South American qualifying – just a single point behind other tournament favourites Brazil. The theory also ignores the obvious fact that the current Swiss team is actually quite capable of getting positive results which haven’t been pre-arranged by Sepp Blatter, Prester John and the Comte de Saint-Germain over a leisurely fondue lunch.
The career of captain Alexander Frei may rival that of Saint-Germain for longevity, but the veteran Basel forward is in excellent form going into the World Cup with 15 league goals in 19 games last season, along with five in nine qualifying games for the national side. His likely strike partner Eren Derdiyok, meanwhile, had a fine season with Bayer Leverkusen, whilst man-mountain (both in size and age) Blaise Nkufo won the 2009/10 Eredivisie title with FC Twente and represents a genuinely physical goal threat.
Behind them in the midfield, the much under-rated Udinese player Gökhan Inler offers a classy combination of muscle and finesse, and Derdiyok’s club colleague Tranquillo Barnetta hits some of the best crosses and dead-balls in Europe. The defence, on the other hand, offers an intriguing combination of the old and slow (Ludovic Magnin), the young and slow (Philippe Senderos) and the young and super-charged (Lazio’s Stephan Lichtsteiner, whose ceaseless running from right-back has seen him dubbed ’Forrest Gump’ by sections of the Italian media). Lichtsteiner’s marauding does, moreover, provide an effective tactic for keeping the ball as far from the Swiss goal as possible, where doubts persist over the fitness of the normally reliable first-choice goalkeeper Diego Benaglio of Wolfsburg, who underwent knee surgery earlier this year and only made his comeback at the end of March.
The Swiss also have the slight advantage of being managed by one of the greatest coaches of all time. Ottmar Hitzfeld is not only the winner of a combined nine league titles and seven domestic cups in Germany and Switzerland, he also achieved the feat of managing two different clubs to a Champions League win before José Mourinho had even taken over at Porto. He did it in four years too, whereas Mourinho took six. Although similar success for Switzerland in the World Cup is almost certainly too much to ask, having Hitzfeld calling the shots should give them a slightly better chance than usual. The conspiracy theorists can keep watching the skies – everybody else should keep watching Switzerland.
Also See: Switzerland World Cup 2010 Squad.