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Hoping for French Evolution

SWITZERLAND

A young side drawn mainly from immigrant backgrounds, Switzerland’s World Cup team is about as far removed from the stereotyped image of the Alpine nation as possible.

While the Swiss are often regarded as reserved, diplomatic and predictable, their national side is a feisty outfit with a surprising amount of flair. Stephan Lichtsteiner and hard-tackling captain Gokhan Inler never shy away from a battle, while the impish skills of Xherdan Shaqiri could make him one of the most exciting players this World Cup.

The make-up of the team has changed beyond recognition over the past few years as the national federation, which runs one of Europe’s most impressive youth development programmes, has tapped into the potential offered by Switzerland’s immigrant communities.

Switzerland will be going to their third successive World Cup, an excellent record for a small country, especially considering that football is less popular than ice hockey and alpine skiing.

Under former Bayern Munich manager Ottmar Hitzfeld (in pic), their prospects are better compared to that in the previous two editions and they should be a far more entertaining proposition than their dour, defence-oriented predecessors.

They open their campaign against Ecuador in Brasilia on June 15, then meet France in Salvador on June 20 and Honduras in Manaus on June 25.

As nearly all of their players are based in top European leagues, those matches will not unduly faze them.

Switzerland may have problems at the back where Philippe Senderos and Djourou have struggled for form at their clubs.

They are prone to lapses, such as squandering a three-goal lead in a 4-4 draw at home to Iceland, but young forwards such as Josip Drmic and Admir Mehmedi offer energy up front.

KEY PLAYERS

Tranquillo Barnetta: An attacking midfielder who has scored 10 times for Switzerland, he is set for his third World Cup having recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him for six months in the 2011-12 season. He missed during the penalty shootout defeat to Ukraine in the second round of the 2006 World Cup, spoiling an otherwise excellent tournament. Raised at St Gallen, he has been in the Bundesliga since 2004 playing for Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke, Hannover and Eintracht Frankfurt.

Valon Behrami: A Kosovo-born player, Behrami moved to Switzerland at the age of four. Happy at right-back or in midfield, Behrami, who suffered a nasty knee injury during a three-season spell at West Ham United, has revived his career since joining Napoli in 2012.

Xherdan Shaqiri: Kosovo-born Shaqiri can play on either flank and is always a threat with his powerful shooting and good crosses. He moved to Switzerland as a child because of the war in his homeland and joined FC Basel’s youth academy at 10. He joined Bayern in 2012 and was part of their treble-winning team last season.

ECUADOR

A quick look at Ecuador’s World Cup qualifying campaign would lead to the conclusion that their biggest strength was playing home matches at high altitude in Quito.

Generally regarded as the weakest of South America’s six representatives, Ecuador won seven games and drew one at the Atahualpa. While on the road, they managed only three draws and five defeats.

Coach Reinaldo Rueda (in pic) said there is much more to his team than just a piece of geographical fortune. “Ecuador qualified because we have good players working well, not because of altitude,” he said.

The Andean nation had never played at the World Cup until making their debut in 2002, yet have qualified for three of the past four editions. On all three occasions, they have been led by coaches from neighbouring Colombia —firstly Hernan Dario Gomez, then Luis Fernando Suarez and now Rueda.

This time around, they overcame tragedy on the way when striker Christian Benitez, who scored in three qualifiers, died of a heart attack in Qatar where he was playing for his club. Benitez, 27, passed away last July, little more than a month after playing in the qualifier away to Peru, which turned out to be his final game.

Ecuador’s greatest strength is on the wings with Manchester United’s Valencia marauding down the right and the electric Jefferson Montero on the left.

Montero’s speed, trickery and deadly finishing make him an instant crowd puller and he can be unplayable on his day. Cristian Noboa keeps the two wingers supplied with excellent distribution from the heart of the midfield while the hard-tackling Segundo Castillo provides protection for the defence. Castillo’s role could prove crucial as Ecuador have been shown to have a soft centre.

KEY PLAYERS

Edison Mendez: The squad’s most experienced player, he has played in both of Ecuador's previous World Cup appearances in 2002 and 2006, and scored their first World Cup goal in the 1-0 win over Croatia in 2002.

Jefferson Montero: Montero was raised in a small town on the coast where he began playing football against older and bigger opponents, who he outwitted with his speed and technique. He has since transformed into a hugely skilled winger, almost impossible to play against on his best days and arguably more talented than Valencia.

Antonio Valencia: Antonio is Ecuador’s best-known player, thanks to his performances for Manchester United since 2009.He stands out on the wing with his pace, tactical obedience and scoring ability.

Four years after making fools of themselves in South Africa, France have regained their credibility and can even realistically contemplate having a major impact on the World Cup finals.

In 2010, the ‘Les Bleus’ went on strike in support of Nicolas Anelka, who had been thrown out of the squad for insulting coach Raymond Domenech, and were ousted from the competition in the first round itself.

Laurent Blanc then took the team to the Euro 2012 quarter finals, but off-field problems again got in the way and the French players were lambasted for their childish behaviour. It has taken new coach Didier Deschamps (in pic) less than two years to transform the squad and their image.

France, drawn in Group E with Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador, should claim the top spot. Since 1998, the erratic French have either reached the final or failed to win even one game at the World Cup.

The official Fifa rankings for their past four Cup final appearances bear that point out: first in 1998, 28th in 2002, second in 2006, 29th in 2010. If that pattern is repeated, they are set to reach the final again this time, but a semi-final appearance might be a more likely target, if they do click. Their qualifying campaign was disappointing, but victory in the play-offs gave a hint of a better future.

France now rely on a stable midfield — consisting of Yohan Cabaye, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi — a perfect launch pad for the attacking duo of Mathieu Valbuena and Benzema.

Things, though, will not be easy, especially after winger Franck Ribery was ruled out due to a back injury.

KEY PLAYERS

Karim Benzema: Benzema seems to have finally shed the extra kilos that previously prevented him from hitting top form and has rediscovered his scoring touch with France after a 1,222-minute drought. Finding his mark as France’s lone forward, he can also play in a deeper role.

Olivier Giroud: Powerful, athletic and strong in the air, Giroud is also supremely comfortable in front of the goal, where his finishing, one-touch play and ability to improvise make him a constant menace. After first being used as an understudy to Karim Benzema, Giroud has increasingly come to be seen as an alternative option by Deschamps.

Paul Pogba; In England, they say of Pogba as “the one Alex Ferguson should not have let go”, following his departure from Manchester United in 2012 after only a handful of games for the club. Another defensive midfielder with a box-to-box drive, the 2013 Golden Boy award winner also has a penchant for goals and for the spectacular. He is already a starter for France and oozes class.

 

Honduras’ World Cup record is little to shout about before their third appearance in the finals.

‘Los Catrachos’ have never progressed beyond the first round, have never won a game and not scored a goal in their last appearance.

Their group rivals France will not fear the Central Americans. However, Ecuador and Switzerland have reasons to believe that Honduras could defy expectations and reach the last 16 for the first time.

Switzerland exited the 2010 World Cup after a 0-0 draw against Honduras in their final group match, while Ecuador know coach Luis Fernando Suarez (in pic) well.

The Colombian was hired by Honduras back in 2011 after he had coached Ecuador to their second consecutive World Cup in 2006. Suarez took Ecuador into the last 16 for the first and only time.

It is easy to overlook Honduras, but while they lack star power, one of their notable strengths is the unity of the team. Suarez has introduced young players to freshen up his side and led the under-23 squad to the quarter finals at the 2012 Olympics.

But recent results are not so encouraging. At a friendly in March that was supposed to be a source of national pride, Honduras eked out a 2-1 win over Venezuela. But the visitors fielded only a second-string team.

Honduras have had to deal with its share of adversity — the country was engaged in the brief 1969 ‘Football War’ against El Salvador, which coincided with rioting during a World Cup qualifier between the two countries.

These days the adversity comes in the form of rampant crime and a drug war.

Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate, according to the United Nations, and hardly anyone is immune to the scourge, not even footballers.

Palacios

KEY PLAYERS

Maynor Figueroa: Maynor is a centre-back for his country, playing at left-back for his Premier League club. While known for his versatility, consistency and experience, Maynor has had a rocky campaign at Hull this year. However, he made no mistake with one of the most famous goals in England in the last few years, when he scored from a free-kick inside his own half against Stoke City in December 2009.

Emilio Izaguirre: One of Honduras’ strong points is their attacking down the left flank with Izaguirre, a good winger who likes to cut into the box but can also deliver a good cross. The Celtic full-back is reported to want to stay with the Scottish Premier League club, where he is under contract until next year. In 2010-11, Izaguirre was named the league’s player
of the year.

Wilson Palacios: One of the strongest players in the side, Palacios has played for several English teams since 2007. This modest man has been described as a water carrier and midfield destroyer rolled into one.

Compiled by Anshuman Roy