Swiss climbers conquer new peak
© AFP

The days when the sporting community in Switzerland concentrated firmly on their athletes’ prowess in snow or on ice are over. In the picturesque Alpine nation, football has sparked collective joy and pride with increasing regularity for some time now.

The Swiss national team have emerged as one of the strongest on the planet and climbed to an unprecedented seventh place in the latest edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. It also means coach Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team are seeded in the Final Draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.

This triumph is undoubtedly the product of meticulously planned and consistently implemented programmes from the top to the bottom of the Swiss game. It is also the logical consequence of truly impressive results over recent months, flagged in advance by occasional glorious moments and events in the preceding years.

"On the basis of what I know, I can say with certainty there has probably never been a better team as the current [Switzerland national team],” former Swiss head coach Jakob Köbi Kuhn exclusively told FIFA.com

"At exactly the right time, specifically in the 1990s, projects were put into place to promote the development of young talent, and this task was accomplished really well. I spent a few years working at the association. It was a fantastic period, and it’s been successfully continued,” continued the 70-year-old, a commanding presence in the Swiss dugout from 2001 to 2008.

"All over the world, we’re not only envied, we’re also asked by people from every imaginable country: 'how come such a small country can excel in international football?' As you’d expect, success has many fathers, but we can certainly be proud of our football." 

Recipe behind the success
A short trip back to Abuja clarifies one or two matters. Almost exactly four years ago, a young and title-hungry Swiss team sensationally won the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2009 in the Nigerian capital. At the time, just minutes after a 1–0 victory over the host nation in the final, near-speechless coach Dany Ryser told FIFA.com: "This is a magnificent moment for Swiss football. I hope a few of my lads will be there at Brazil 2014 and produce results similar to this one in Nigeria."

Some 47 months later, four of his protégés - Granit Xhaka (9 appearances), Ricardo Rodriguez (9), Pajtim Kasami (1), and Haris Seferovic (6), scorer of the winning goal in the U-17 World Cup final, have all featured in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

On the basis of what I know, I can say with certainty there has probably never been a better team as the current [Switzerland national team].
Former Swiss head coach Jakob Köbi Kuhn

"If you add the lads who played in the UEFA U-21 European Championship in 2011, what you have is the best part of today’s national team, almost without exception. It’s a remarkable achievement," Kuhn proudly stated.

Today’s established senior internationals including Xherdan Shaqiri, Yann Sommer, Admir Mehmedi and Mario Gavranovic all featured in the 2-0 defeat to Spain in the 2011 final in the Danish city of Aarhus. "We didn’t just copy everything that had already been done in France, for example," continued the Swiss coach of the year for 2007.

"France certainly took on a pioneering role with their professionally run centres of excellence. We don’t have elite academies as such. We pulled the players together and have them lodge with families. I think that has given us an edge.”

Nowadays, members of the national squad travel to represent their country from the best leagues in Europe. Eleven of the 26 players used in World Cup qualifying ply their trade in the German Bundesliga, six more are at Italian Serie A clubs and one apiece in the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga.

They represent top clubs including VfL Wolfsburg (Diego Benaglio, Timm Klose and Rodriguez) and Bayern Munich (Shaqiri), SSC Napoli (Gokhan Inler, Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami), Juventus (Stephan Lichtsteiner), Real Sociedad (Haris Seferovic) and Fulham (Philippe Senderos).

Kuhn regards this as proof of significantly improved standards: "The path followed by our players indicates they’ve not just made it abroad, they’re making it at leading clubs. That’s the biggest difference compared to the past. We used to have overseas-based players, but hardly ever at big clubs." 

On a par with the best
The footballers, long ago elevated to the status of icons among the fans, are already tense and excited about 6 December and the Final Draw for the 2014 World Cup in Costa do Sauípe in the Brazilian federal state of Bahia. For the first time in the nation’s footballing history, Hitzfeld’s team will be drawn from pot one as seeds, due to their rise into the top seven of the October edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking (published on 17 October 2013) and which was used to determine the seedings (Brazil lie 11th but are automatically seeded as hosts).

But what are the reasons behind Switzerland’s ascent to their best position ever since the launch of the rankings in August 1993? And compared to September 2013, how have they managed to climb from 14th to seventh in just a single month? 

For the calculation, which takes into account all official senior team fixtures over the last four years, points are awarded per team and match, calculated using a multiplier consisting of four factors: the result, the importance of the fixture, the strength of the opposition and the mean value of the strengths of the continental federations of both teams.

The results of the multiplication analysis of all games played by a team are finally totalled in an average score over a period of 12 months, as the weighting of results is reduced after each 12 month period. Results drop out of the calculation after four years. So much for the math. 

Good results combined with consistency
What this all means in concrete terms is that the Swiss, who last featured in the top ten with ninth place in October 1995, have benefited in the first instance from their latest victories in World Cup qualifying away to Albania (2-1) and at home to Slovenia (1-0), while for example the Italians, who slip to eighth from fourth place in the ranking, could do no better than 2–2 draws away to Denmark and at home to Armenia in their parallel qualifier fixtures. 

However, on top of that the average value achieved by the Swiss over the four-year time period has been significantly enhanced due to a number of notable results from friendlies against very high ranking opponents. In August 2013 the Swiss beat Brazil 1-0, and also recorded a 5–3 friendly victory over Germany in May 2012. Hitzfeld’s team also drew away to the Netherlands in November 2011.

Add in the fact that the Swiss successfully qualified for the last two editions of the FIFA World Cup (Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010), and defeated Spain 1-0 in the group stage of the last edition when the eventual world champions were second in the world ranking, earning the Swiss a very high number of ranking points due to the multiplication formula.

It therefore becomes clear that the current excellent position is the fruit of consistent high-quality efforts, carefully managed and expanded and assiduously implemented over an extended period of time. The intriguing question for the near future is to see how far the Swiss can continue their progress when they arrive in Brazil. 

Watch the video of our exclusive interview with Jakob "Köbi" Kuhn by following the link in the right hand navigation.