Switzerland have done it again, grabbing glory from the mouths of supposedly greater footballing nations. Once again, one of the sport’s superpowers has woken up one morning, ready to eat breakfast with destiny, only to go downstairs and find that Switzerland has already scoffed its meal. In this summer’s Euro 2020, France seemed to be moving toward the next stage of the tournament, soaring toward glory on the back of a series of sublime performances from Paul Pogba. That was until Switzerland snatched away their aspirations with a last-minute goal to force extra time in the Round of 16 before sending them home by winning the penalty shootout. Most recently, Italy has been made to suffer at Swiss hands. The newly crowned European champions were looking to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, but Switzerland held them to a 1-1 draw and then beat Bulgaria 4-0, meaning that Switzerland claimed the top spot in the group and Italy must now reach Qatar via the playoffs.
Maybe Italy should not have been surprised: Switzerland have a recent history of holding the favorites to account. Shortly after Portugal became European champions in 2016, Switzerland beat them 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Argentina got past Switzerland thanks to a goal in the depths of extra time, scored by Ángel Di Maria and provided by a pass of the rarest brilliance from Leo Messi. And most famously, in the first game of the 2010 World Cup, Switzerland defeated the eventual champions Spain by a goal to nil.
How do the Swiss do it? Well, for one thing, they have benefited greatly from immigration. At the last World Cup, in Russia, eight of their 23 squad members were born outside Switzerland, more than any other team competing at the tournament. The speed of this change has been notable. As Travis Waldron observed in the Huffington Post, “When Switzerland qualified for the World Cup in 1994, every player on its roster had been born in the country. The next time Switzerland qualified, in 2006, roughly half of the team was made up of first- or second-generation immigrants.” What’s more, they have also had some of the finest coaches of their era, including Ottmar Hitzfeld, who claimed the Champions League title twice in five seasons with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, and Roy Hodgson in his pomp. This has frequently made them streetwise in avoiding defeat, even dull, and they were jointly responsible for one of the most stultifying games in the history of international football—a 0-0 draw with Ukraine at the 2006 World Cup, where Ukraine advanced 3-0 on penalties, a contest of such torpor that it threatened to continue forever. Yet there seems to be something else going on with Switzerland, and that’s to be found in the performances of their goalkeeper, Yann Sommer.
Sommer, who is 32 years of age and plays in the Bundesliga for Borussia Mönchengladbach (or, as they are nicknamed, Gladbach), is not the captain of the Swiss national side. He is arguably something more important than that: He is its soul. Sommer has a striking quality, one which he shares with his team, which is that the more expertly he is attacked, the more likely he is to prevail. Against France and Spain at Euro 2020, Sommer was at least superb and at best otherworldly. Time and again he flung himself to all corners of his goal, moving with the same disregard for personal safety as a Hollywood stunt double. When his opponents appear unbeatable, Sommer becomes almost infallible, a little like a metal that strengthens with the fierce addition of heat. By contrast, Sommer is more likely to concede goals when the attempts against him are substandard or when he commits an unforced error, such as, say, his glaring mistake against Bayern Munich in June 2020, when under minimal pressure he slashed a clearance into the path of the Bayern forward Joshua Zirkzee, who duly passed the ball into an empty net.
Indeed it is fitting that, during the last two years or so of Switzerland’s impressive form, several of their players are either current or former Borussia Mönchengladbach players: Sommer in goal, Nico Elvedi in defense, Denis Zakaria and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka in midfield, and Breel Embolo in attack. That’s because, in one sense, Switzerland are the Gladbach of international football: a smart, technically proficient team who are unlikely to win the biggest trophies but through whom the difficult path to victory often leads. Like Gladbach, too, there is something carefree about them, in that they are not overwhelmed by expectation, and they also have a folk hero—Embolo or, say, Xherdan Shaqiri—who will supply a crucial goal now and then.
So that’s Switzerland: largely unheralded, often understated, but posing an uncomfortable and occasionally fatal threat. It’s not clear how they will do at next year’s World Cup; yet what is clear, given their recent exploits, is that whatever they do they will be watched with a very wary eye.