The World Cup Dark Horse Series: Part 1

The Swiss national team will be all smiles if midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri picks up where he left off in Munich. - Lennart Preiss

They may be merely "the best of the rest", but starting in just a couple weeks a handful of teams have the potential to be giant-killers at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. A select few, though certainly not favoured, aren't beyond causing a stir in the knockout stage. Eighty Six Forever takes a look at the first of the top three "outsiders" who are hungry for glory.

Switzerland

My friend Jorge - sorry Senor Mendoza I'm talking about longtime site-lurker Jorge Federico - is sure to like this pick, but might just quibble about the Helvatians being classified as "outsiders". Hold on to your Toblerone, Jorge.

To be fair, the Swiss do sit 8th in the FIFA World Rankings. For those still busy scoffing at validity of the world soccer body's weighting system - and it does have its idiosyncrasies - remember that Switzerland is the only nation to have beaten defending World Cup champions Spain at the 2010 World Cup. Spain had gone undefeated in EURO 2008, and did the same at EURO 2012.

Still, nobody speaks of Switzerland in the same hushed tones of reverence normally reserved for Italy, Spain, Germany, England, The Netherlands, Portugal, or host-nation Brazil.

Switzerland finished atop their UEFA qualifying group undefeated, with 7 wins and 3 draws. But considering the group featured such minnows as Cyprus, Albania, Norway, Slovenia and Iceland, that wasn't exactly unexpected.

The Swiss are the seeded team in Group E (along with France, Ecuador, and Honduras). France will nonetheless be the heavy favourites to finish first in the group, but the Swiss have generally played decently against their western neighbours. Switzerland last faced Honduras in South Africa four years ago, when the two drew 0-0, in what has to have been one of the most dreadfully boring matches ever to have been played in a World Cup. The red and white will want to atone for that, and their early exit in 2010.

The Swiss are a youngish team overall, but feature a back line that's starting to grey a little. Coach Ottmar Hitzfeld's team is capable of scoring - thanks to the likes of Josip Drmic (Nuremberg), Granit Xhaka (Borrusia Moenchengladbach), and Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern Munich) - but defending against pace in the heat and humidity might be tough for the Swiss. Diego Benaglio (Wolsfsburg) is a quality keeper in any league, and will be the least of their worries, barring injury.

The Swiss are (what else?) a very well organized side, and a shining example of Swiss efficiency. Playing out of a 4-2-3-1, they prefer to pounce on the counter rather than go toe-to-toe with opponents for 90 minutes. They're also very effective on corners and free kicks. In qualifying, the Swiss converted on just under 25% of their set piece opportunities.

Due to the aforementioned aging of the back line, the Swiss defence is a patchwork in progress. Stephane Grichting is no longer there, nor is long-time LB Ludovic Magnin, who had 63 appearances with the Swiss national team between 2000 and 2010. One major upgrade comes in the form of 22-year-old CB Fabian Schaer (FC Basel), who notched three goals in three qualifying appearances for the Swiss team.

This is a side experienced enough not to be flustered, and at the same time young enough to be overflowing with boundless confidence. There's no doubt that Switzerland flies well below most people's radars - something that might just suit them well.

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