Cartography of the Rossocrociati: An International and Domestic Survey of Swiss Football

Ask most European football fans you come across what nations come to mind when they think about the beautiful game at the international level and the same names will always come up; Germany, Spain, England, Italy, and France.


Through a combination of historic success and/or dominant domestic competitions, the buck stops there for many. But thanks to willful ignorance, or perhaps due to lacking the ability to dig deep away from the continent’s shining lights, failure to understand or appreciate “lesser” nations both at club and international level is, unfortunately, commonplace.


For millions across Europe, however, those “lesser” national teams are a way of life, and in that vein, Switzerland is no different. Despite being a regular feature in early editions of the World Cup, Rossocrociati have only re-established themselves as a tournament dark horse in the last decade both at the World Cup as well as the European Championships.



This culminated in the national side, under former boss Vladimir Petković, reaching the quarterfinals at Euro 2020 thanks to a shock penalty shootout win over France before ultimately pushing Spain to the absolute limit and unfortunately falling to the same fate against La Roja.


It was the first and only time the Swiss made it to the last eight of the competition, but despite the high-water mark, there are concerns surrounding former midfielder and current headmaster Murat Yakin’s side coming into the 2024 edition in Germany due to a combination of an aging national team core and an unknown landscape on the domestic front.


In that light, I had the pleasure to sit down with friend and current Sporting Director of FC Biel-Bienne 1896, Oliver Zesiger, for an honest assessment surrounding all things football in the Alpine nation.


During Euro 2024 qualifying, expectations ran high for the Swiss after their showing in the previous tournament, but ultimately, Yakin’s outfit struggled to build on previous performances and labored to a second-place finish in Group I behind a resurgent Romania and only finishing ahead of Israel by just two points. For Zesiger, there are doubts that Nati can repeat their previous tournament exploits.


The Swiss Golden Generation Overshadowed by Belgium


“The followers of our national team were certainly not pleased with the performances in the second half of the qualification phase. They were too focused on getting a result rather than a win. The team was only able to beat Andorra twice, Belarus and Israel. Four wins out of 10 isn’t good enough.


Another problem was that Granit Xhaka said after the draw of the qualification groups, that only 10 out of 10 wins would be good enough. So, the expectations were sky high and out in the public. With this kind of expectation, four wins weren’t good enough.


Now when it comes to the actual tournament, the general opinion is that we should get out of the group and then see which opponent we draw. As always, the objective is to reach the quarterfinal; something the team achieved at the 2020 Euros, famously beating France in the Round of 16.


But there is major doubt if the players can repeat the 2020 effort, as the team gets older and only a few young players managed to break into the team. Most of them are second-string players.”



Despite those doubts, and a group consisting of hosts Germany, and difficult duo Hungary and Scotland, the spirit of 2020 may still have a role to play.


“It goes without saying that Germany is the heavy favorite in this group. Scotland is a tough team to beat, and collectively, Hungary is a strong team as well. While individually Switzerland might be superior to both teams, it’s all about bringing the horsepower onto the track at the right time. If the team manages to do it, then we should be able to get out of this group. After that, it all depends on the opponents. 


Some people were happy when we drew Portugal at the 2022 World Cup and it didn’t end well. Most people were disappointed when we drew France at the 2020 Euros and it ended very well. The team is able to beat any other team when everything is coming together.”


When it comes to the expected finalized squad Yakin may rely on beginning next month, despite the inclusion of a small cadre of U23 talents, Switzerland still face the prospect of their aging generation of talent rapidly approaching the end of their life-cycle in the national set-up. For Zesiger, and many others, this presents another concern.


Fabian Schar: Newcastle’s Swiss Leader in Defense


“This is a major concern going forward. The team is aging and the new generation has not had many chances to prove themselves on this level. Xhaka might have another tournament in him, but for [Xherdan] Shaqiri, an often deciding player, the 2024 Euros might be his last.


We don’t have another difference-maker in the squad, and while [Zeki] Amdouni, [Dan] Ndoye, or [Noah] Okafor are good, they aren’t on his level yet. The Swiss FA will have to manage expectations after this tournament, as the public is still spoiled by the current generation.”


Amdouni will be of particular interest to many as well, considering the 23-year-old Burnley forward finished atop the group in goals (6) during qualifying. Despite that, there is every chance that Yakin will not trust the Geneva-born striker to lead the line ahead of Breel Embolo, lending further credence to those concerns mentioned. As for Okafor, his ship may also not have control of the weather gauge.


Analyzing Switzerland’s Young Crop of Defenders


“Our first option will be Breel Embolo. Granted, he’s coming back from a cruciate ligament injury and hasn’t had much playing time recently, but with his physical abilities, he’s destined to lead the attack at the Euros. He has proven himself on the international stage already.


Amdouni, while being our top scorer during the qualification phase, needs a bit more seasoning. He is very talented, but he still needs to confirm his status. He will most likely come on late in games to make a difference, as he is a more variable scorer than Embolo. 


Potential Switzerland XI for the Euros


Okafor, on the other hand, might play in case Yakin goes with a two-man attack or if he decides to play Okafor on the wings. He is close to becoming a regular starter, but injures have hampered his progress in recent years.


On the home front, Zesiger ran the rule over the current BSC Young Boys hegemony that exists in the Swiss Super League and if it can outstrip the former dominance of FC Basel.


Renato Veiga: The Portuguese Jack-of-all-trades Shining at Basel


“Young Boys are not only the most successful but also the richest team in the country. They already have the status that Basel had in the 2010s. What they are doing is sustainable and successful. They’ve saved a lot of money to be able to build an academy for their prospects without public funding.


This will help them greatly going forward, as they were one of the few teams without an academy. And they’re not investing in huge transfer fees; something that Basel did differently, especially towards the end of the last decade. There is no end in sight of Young Boys’ domination.


But this season, while still winning the league title, they seemed more fragile than before. They’ve lost a lot of quality with the likes of Fassnacht, Garcia, Rieder and so on. They need to recruit smartly, otherwise the competition might catch up one day.


Especially Lugano, funded by Chicago Fire owner Joe Mansueto, is hot on their toes. And they have the funds to compete if they want. But they chose the smart approach by not going all in from the start.”


Player Analysis: Ruben Vargas


As Sporting Director at FC Biel, Zesiger is in a unique position to shed a bit of light on not only the current status of the domestic landscape in Switzerland regarding player development as well as export, but how the sands may shift in the coming years. Unfortunately, much like with the national team, there are concerns, which undoubtedly will play a part away from home.


“I’d like to be positive…” Zesiger said, “But recent signs make it difficult. Our young players don’t go straight to the Bundesliga anymore. They go to Belgium, Ligue 2, or 2. Bundesliga, which shows you that we’ve dropped down the pecking order. 


While our formation of young players is still very good for a nation of our size, we can’t expect to produce Xhakas or Shaqiris every year. The league is decent, but I feel like we fall behind nations who already, and successfully, adapted to a data-driven approach; something that is lacking in Switzerland. 


Still, compared to the country’s number of citizens, our stadiums are very well visited and there was an influx of new fans after the pandemic. That’s a great sign for a league with only a minor TV deal, compared to other leagues of similar status.



Overall, Swiss football depends on investors. Many clubs in the first division are in foreign hands. Without said investments, the gap to the leagues in front of us would only grow. They’re essential nowadays.”


Though foreign involvement and investment has reached the Swiss Super League, various mitigating factors, including the financial side of football, still may scupper it’s potential in in the next decade.


I believe the financial hurdle will still be there in 5-10 years. But as the number of foreign investors rises, this might also not be the case. Swiss football is also an almost closed society. But we should be encouraged to look over our borders to see what other teams or leagues do well.


And we should also look further than people who already work in football. There are hundreds of talented people who are talented in different ways and would be willing to work in a club. But they never get a chance because they lack a lobby. 



At FC Biel, we are working with young, motivated and talented people off the pitch to further their careers and our club. I strongly believe that this is a good approach to introduce more people to a wider audience.”


At its core, player and personnel development undoubtedly remains at the heart of Swiss football, regardless of potential pitfalls that may need negotiating. In that light, the domestic side of Swiss football remains well-positioned to not only give young players a chance, but young coaches as well.


This should indeed allow all aspects of the sport in-country to progress compared to others while remaining competitive with traditional production houses the likes of the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Portugal.


“I believe that young players are given chances to play in our league [in relation to other leagues around Europe]. The Swiss youth formation is still very good. Coaches are well-trained as well. And with the introduction of a 12-team league, there is now a mid-table section where coaches aren’t in danger of getting sacked, there’s less pressure, and therefore, are more opportunities to play younger players.”



To end, and cutting it back to the national team and the country’s footballing heritage, there could be no better example of what Swiss football is capable of providing than the aforementioned Granit Xhaka.


As captain of the national team and the all-time leader in appearances, Xhaka just completed a historic campaign in the Bundesliga under Xabi Alonso at Bayer Leverkusen, with Die Werkself achieving their first domestic double in club history, doubling their total trophy haul (4) across a 119-year history that has lacked major honors in a big way.


For Zesiger, who has long been one of Xhaka’s loudest and most ardent advocates, 2023-24, as well as his influence on the national team, has not only cemented his legacy, but shows the potential that the nation will hopefully be able to call upon.



“In my book, he’s already the greatest player Switzerland has ever seen. He was excellent at FC Basel, Borussia Mönchengladbach and, for most of the time, at Arsenal. Now he’s doing it again at Leverkusen, and to an ever bigger degree. His influence on Bayer and the Swiss national team is immense and his leadership is being felt in both teams. The day Xhaka retires will be a sad day for our country.”


But as the likes of Xhaka, Shaqiri, and [Yann] Sommer reach the final legs of their international careers, it remains imperative that Swiss football work collectively to not only find those worthy to take up the mantle, but hopefully, are capable of bringing something greater.


By: Andrew Thompson / @GeecheeKid

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / ANP / Getty Images