Swiss fans don’t have much room for optimism at this World Cup. While the squad Switzerland will take to Russia is perfectly adequate, and though the team had the good fortune of being drawn into a pretty manageable group, the presence of a couple superteams surrounding them greatly limits their likely outcomes. Switzerland will not win Group E because Group E has Brazil and Brazil are perfect. If Switzerland do manage to finish second in Group E, they’ll almost certainly receive the honor of playing, and losing to, Group F’s almost certain winner, Germany. And so, with little hope of playing more than four matches on their Russian vacation, the best Swiss fans can reasonably look forward to is their best player getting off a couple highlight reel moves before flying home.
There are worse fates than Switzerland’s, of course. Some teams have no chance of making it out of their groups, and even fewer can enjoy the talents of a player like Xherdan Shaqiri, who does awesome shit with regularity, no matter how long or short their tournaments will probably last. Qualifying for and summarily getting bounced from the Round of 16 doesn’t hold the same allure for Switzerland—they’ve pulled off that very thing at three of the last four World Cups they’ve qualified for—as it does for other nations with inferior soccer histories, but it’s still not nothing. And hey, what if Neymar breaks his foot again and Brazil collapse in his absence like they did four years ago, or if Switzerland meet Germany and Sami Khedira slide-tackles his way into an early red card? It’s not impossible for Switzerland to make a shock quarterfinals appearance, it’s just exceedingly unlikely. That is why Switzerland fans should pray for Shaqiri to have himself a good time in Russia while he can, since his feet are probably Switzerland’s only potential sources of one or two memorable moments.
Goalkeepers: Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Yvon Mvogo (RB Leipzig), Roman Bürki (Borussia Dortmund)
Defenders: Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), François Moubandje (Toulouse), Nico Elvedi (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Manuel Akanji (Borussia Dortmund), Michael Lang (Basel), Ricardo Rodríguez (AC Milan), Johan Djourou (Antalyaspor), Fabian Schär (Deportivo La Coruña)
Midfielders: Remo Freuler (Atalanta), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Valon Behrami (Udinese), Steven Zuber (Hoffenheim), Blerim Džemaili (Bologna), Gelson Fernandes (Eintracht Frankfurt), Denis Zakaria (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City)
Forwards: Breel Embolo (Schalke), Haris Seferović (Benfica), Mario Gavranović (Dinamo Zagreb), Josip Drmić (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
Die Nati (The National Team)
A great World Cup is just what Xherdan Shaqiri deserves after enduring such a miserable club season with Stoke City this past season. Shaqiri, the planet’s most agile tree stump, had himself a hell of a year individually, but found himself let down by sorry teammates and bad managers. The Alpine Messi had his most productive season as a pro, scoring eight goals and assisting seven more, and also played a over 3,000 minutes in a single season for the first time—an impressive and encouraging accomplishment for a player who’s struggled to stay healthy and in form enough to rack up the kinds of playing time required of a good team’s key player.
Still, all those goals and assists weren’t enough to keep Stoke from getting relegated from the Premier League. It was a sad end to the Stokalona era that Shaqiri more than any other player personified. Now he’ll have to find a new team that hopefully will give the headlining role he had at Stoke while surrounding him with better players to make sure the don’t suffer Stoke’s same fate.
Before Shaqiri finds himself a new club, though, he’ll have a chance to reassert his credentials as a very good player by wowing at the World Cup. Shaqiri is Switzerland’s attacking protagonist, and he rewards the team for that central focus with great, wildly entertaining performances. Even if he’s as small as an otter, Shaqiri is strong as an ox, and his strength, speed, touch, and agility make him a nightmare to contain when he’s on the run. His left foot is a weapon of mass destruction that can kill teams with thundering bombs in the form of curling shots from far out and in more subtly fatal ways like a slight and precise through ball that sends a teammate clear through on goal. His talents are myriad, and in the Swiss set-up he’s given the freedom to express them all.
Simply put, Shaqiri (who, by the way, is somehow still only 26 years old) is just the kind of player who can put on a good show even if the team around him is trying its best to put you to sleep, as he demonstrated conclusively with Stoke last season. In his ideal world, he probably scores a couple big goals that drag Switzerland out of the group and goes down admirably against some of his old Bayern Munich teammates in the German team, and in doing so earns himself a good transfer to a fun, ambitious team where he can compete for a starting spot. A good Shaqiri World Cup is good for Swiss fans and neutrals, which is why everyone should be rooting for it.
The best parts of the Swiss squad lay out on the wings. Shaqiri is obviously the star man, and he’ll line up on the right flank. On the opposite side Switzerland will probably use either Steven Zuber or Breel Embolo, two dangerous wide forwards. Behind those wingers are a couple really good attacking fullbacks in Ricardo Rodríguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner. Look for Switzerland to capitalize on those strengths by playing the ball out wide early and often.
Other than that, there’s not much to see. The Swiss defense is pretty good, they have a great passer from deep in Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka, but the other midfielders are unexceptional and none of their strikers are very good. Switzerland will find it hard to score, but they should be pretty decent at keeping the other team off the scoresheet until Shaqiri scores a free kick or sets Haris Seferović with a tap-in even he couldn’t miss. They aren’t a bad team by any means, but they also don’t have much intrigue outside of Shaqiri, which may be enough for a perfectly credible Round of 16 entrance and exit.
All times Eastern
June 17, 2 p.m.: Brazil vs. Switzerland at Rostov Arena
June 22, 2 p.m.: Serbia vs. Switzerland at Kaliningrad Stadium
June 27, 2 p.m.: Switzerland vs. Costa Rica at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium