(Eds: Updates photo links. With AP Photos.)By GRAHAM DUNBARAP Sports Writer
There is one certainty among many possibilities offered by the World Cup draw Friday: Most teams want to be in Switzerland’s group.
The rise of the unheralded Swiss in the FIFA rankings has brought a tournament seeding that will allow the country to avoid many of the top teams in the group stage.
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Switzerland’s status, however, demands an explanation for fans who don’t recall that this landlocked Alpine nation of 8 million hosted the 1954 World Cup.
The Swiss, of late, have been overachievers in sports, thanks mostly to Roger Federer, an America’s Cup-winning sailing team and, naturally, an array of skiers. In soccer’s biggest tournaments, Switzerland has been a regular though low-key guest who typically leaves the party early.
At the 2014 World Cup, the Swiss will be seeded with host and five-time winner Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium and Colombia. The true surprise is that Switzerland claimed the eighth and final seeding ahead of Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.
Those three European powers are among 23 of the 32 teams awaiting their fate in the draw. They could land in the Swiss group, though protocol prevents them from stating as much.
”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 also FIFA’s 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. He coached three clubs there before heading to the Bundesliga.
Switzerland has welcomed job-seekers and displaced people, and the Balkans turmoil of recent years is reflected in Hitzfeld’s lineup. Next June, his roster likely will have more players counting Albanian as their family’s native tongue than French, one of the country’s 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.
At the heart of the midfield are captain Gokhan Inler, Valon Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili. They have Turkish and Albanian 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.
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 cutoff point because host Brazil was exempt from qualifying and its ranking has been lower while playing exhibition matches, which score fewer points in FIFA calculations.)
Switzerland was unbeaten in its group – seven wins and three draws. It was sure to rank highly because 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 soccer federation perhaps missed a trick by not generating ranking points in exhibitions, where its list of games was more difficult than it needed to be. Teams score zero points 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’s team was beaten in South Korea last month, the No. 7 ranking and World Cup seeding was already secure.
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 No. 54 – and Slovenia came from the second-seeded pot.
”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 World Cup draw 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 – which could be grouped with Greece, Algeria and Costa Rica – played by the rules, and played well.