The Longshot: Swiss missing out might not be such a bad thing

Extra efforts may be needed to set up an Iberian derby in the quarters
The Longshot: Swiss missing out might not be such a bad thing

Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri (second left) celebrates with his team-mates after scoring their side’s first goal of the game against Serbia.

BY THE end of play tonight there will be only seven games left to play in the World Cup, the gush of football turned down to a dribble.

Maybe that’s no harm, with the most condensed tournament in its history (four games a day!) taking its toll on all other aspects of life for a football fan. The rich entertainment of the final round of group games made it even more difficult to tear your eyeballs away.

Let’s look at today’s fixtures, which will decide the final places in the quarters, with the winners meeting on Saturday afternoon. Logic points to it being an Iberian derby, one of the oldest football rivalries at an international level, which began 101 years ago this month. Although I’m sure a few of you will be quick to point out their enmity really began in 1581, when the King Henry of Portugal died with no heir, triggering a succession crisis on the peninsula.

But before we get into that, Spain have to defeat another of their land neighbours (thanks to tiny Ceuta, jutting out into the Strait of Gibraltar on the tip of North Africa) and surprise packages for some, Morocco.

Pop quiz: How many times have Morocco bid to host the World Cup? Their failed 2026 bid was their fifth attempt to hold one after unsuccessful bids also in 1994,’98, ’06 and ’10.

They are the side at this tournament who most resemble our own national team. Only 12 of their players were born in the country, the majority a product of Morocco’s large diaspora. They are also prospering despite limited possession, giving up 59% to Canada, 67% to Belgium, and 65% to Croatia. This will likely be a much higher figure still against Spain (their tally of 969 passes against Japan was a record for a losing team at a tournament).

We have had no underdog wins yet in the knockout stages. Can Morocco provide it? These two have curiously only met three times in history, despite their mainlands being separated by mere miles. The Europeans have won twice with one draw (Spain got a late equaliser for 2-2 in the team’s only previous World Cup contest in the group stages in 2018).

I’m going to be shouting for the only Africans left, partly because their ambassador to Ireland once accepted an invite to my house for dinner (something every other top foreign diplomat in the country turned down). They are 6/1 to win in 90 minutes but I prefer 12/1 for them to advance after spotters.

This evening’s game sees Portugal v Switzerland, two very different cultures on our small continent.

I spent time in both at major football tournaments in the noughties.

Readers will probably be more familiar with the Atlantic nation. It is a fine, friendly place. While there for three weeks in the summer of 2004, people welcomed me into their homes, generously ferried me around on long lifts, and went over and above being gracious hosts, to me at least.

Switzerland was a bit different in 2008. One young woman in Zurich wouldn’t stop laughing when I told her I couldn’t ski.

In the outskirts of Basel (which were, admittedly, located in France), after we had cycled into the city for the first time, a companion and I had a battery thrown at us from a passing car by a mystery assailant while we ate breakfast outside a cafe.

Later that evening our two rental bikes disappeared, mainly because I locked them together, but not to a bike stand. The next day, it took me a long, hot, hungover afternoon and several circuits of the city centre on foot to find them (their renter motivated me by mentioning €600 fine per bike), still locked together, hidden under some trash a few alleys away from where we’d left them,

My next problem was getting these two far-from-lightweight bikes about 20 miles back into Germany (Basel really is a frontier city), as my travelling companion had legged it to Italy by this stage.

As I had just the one lock I decided I had to take both of them on a tram and then a train. As I said though, they were heavy. And the trams were not quite flush with the roadway. So rather than risk lifting one on and possibly abandoning the other, I attempted to manoeuvre both up and on to the tram, which simply put, I could not. Around 15 commuters who had just boarded the tram watched as I tried and failed to do this. They didn’t laugh in fairness to them; they probably didn’t realise I couldn’t ski. But no one thought of helping. The doors began to close so I pulled both bikes off. They stared out at me like goldfish from behind the windows of the tram, so I began to stare right back at them, which I think was quite appropriate given how frustrated I was.

As I waited for the next one I got into a conversation with a man wearing a lesser-spotted Liechtenstein jersey (he wasn’t from there, but neither was he Swiss) and at first he agreed to help me lift them on the next tram, before I convinced him to cycle one to the train station with me as he was going that way anyway. This risked him veering off during the journey and nicking a bike too, but at least that would have opened me up to the first truly meaningful bike chase of my life.

Why tell this story?

I’m not a huge fan of stereotypes and they certainly are little help in actual personal interactions with other nationalities. But the fact that almost everybody has been nice to me whenever I have been in Portugal and I met almost no friendly Swiss, and encountered ones who went out of their way to be unhelpful, does linger in the memory.

The only World Cup I’ve been at saw me spend a fortnight each in Japan and Korea and although the former were overtly racist in a sort of charming way, while the latter were the finest people I’ve ever encountered, I’ve found myself supporting both with equal fervour at most tournaments since and was sad to see them depart yesterday.

Watching Portugal beat England twice on penalties in two tournaments in succession while being in tiny Portuguese bars saw me share some ecstatic moments and hugs with their fans.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence as the arrowhead of their attack has soured my grá for them in more recent years (his international manager is even tiring of his petulance). Contrast his sportsmanship and general attitude of late to someone of similar sporting ability, Basel-born Roger Federer.

Should the Swiss be blamed for their somewhat cold reputations? A quarter of their population was born elsewhere, so aloofness cannot simply be put down to dislike of outsiders.

It might have more to do with the massive mountains that separate it into such distinct communities. The country has four languages, but respective areas are nearly all homogenous, with those who share those tongues living alongside each other rather than intermingling.

Enough of personal prejudices and back-of-an-envelope sociology though, I hear you murmur, what about the football?

This is the third meeting between Switzerland and Portugal this year, with Seferovic scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory in their last encounter in the Nations League in June, a week after they were hammered 4-0 in Lisbon, when CR7 (who I confusingly misheard as Seahorse Seven on the radio this week) struck twice.

The last time they met at a major tournament was in 2008, and I was sitting in the stadium that night as someone struggled to trundle away with those bikes locked together through the spokes. The co-hosts brought the curtain down on that Euro campaign with a decent performance at St Jakob Park and a win thanks to two second-half goals from Hakan Yakin, brother of current boss Murat. Portugal were already through and fielded a second string as the Swiss bowed out.

The Swiss are good qualifiers for World Cups but haven’t made the quarter-finals since hosting the tournament in 1954, although Portugal themselves have only been beyond this stage twice.

Their last knockout win at the World Cup (not including shootouts) came in a last-16 tie against the Netherlands in 2006. Strangely, the Swiss departed from that tournament in Germany without conceding a goal, when Ukraine dumped them out on penalties in the second round.

Could this go all the way to extra time and penalties? Recent form says no. Portugal have gone nine games without a draw in all competitions, while none of Switzerland’s last 10 games have ended level. Indeed, none of the last seven meetings between Portugal and Switzerland have been drawn. Or is it time for one?

Pondering the correct to hit the spot

WE HAVE had some ponderous run-ups to penalties in this tournament. See Lewandowski, several Japanese players, et al.

Just how mazy can a run-up be though?

With a free kick you are obviously restricted from too long a run-up (say from halfway) as you might have to dodge around opposing players or get tired. But no opposing player can encroach in the box for a spot-kick. There is a slight chance you might get booked for time-wasting but if you wanted to bamboozle the keeper in an original way, you could run to one corner of the box, over to the other and then loop your run back towards the spot. Are you making life harder for yourself rather than the keeper by doing this? Maybe. But score and you’ve probably joined Antonin Panenka in getting a penalty named after yourself.

We’ve had one shootout at this tournament, with nine games left to play. It is 9/4 there will be two or fewer shootouts in Qatar, and 1/3 on three or more (each of the last seven winners of penalties at World Cups have shot second, by the way). 

Do shootouts make teams take fewer risks in general play? Well, in the knockout phases between 1954 and 1970 when there were no shootouts there was not one draw in 40 games.

The Match makes return

WILL we avert our gaze from the Middle East for a moment?

There is golf in South Africa this weekend, but most interest will be in The Match, a showdown format pioneered by the Liv departed Phil Mickelson a few years back.

Rory McIlroy will team up with Tiger Woods to take on Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas in a special charity contest next Saturday evening.

It will take place under lights at the Pelican Golf Club in Florida, with the 12-hole floodlit event raising money for Hurricane relief efforts.

Spieth and Thomas (4/5) are familiar partners, but I think McIlroy will relish playing with Woods (who pulled out of the Hero World Challenge last week) and they’ll win at evens.

The Bet

I WILL take Morocco to go through on penalties at 12/1 and Portugal to win in extra time at 15/2.

The bets haven’t been going so well so probably best not to double that one up.

If you have any recent betting successes to share or advice, don’t hesitate to send them on to: robert.oshea@the echo.ie

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