Switzerland's final chance to deliver on so much promise
MOSCOW -- At this stage of the World Cup, most teams don't simply have to overcome the next opponents to progress to the next round. They are also faced with far less tangible obstacles, made up of fears, past failures and inhibitions.
Vladimir Petkovic's Switzerland are a good case in point. As much as Granit Xhaka & Co. have taken heart from landing in the easier side of the draw and the unpredictable nature of this World Cup, the overall sensation is one of immense pressure to push through the football nation's historic glass ceiling at last. The Nati have not made it to the final eight of a big tournament since 1954, when the World Cup was staged in their home country and only comprised of 16 teams, and have never gone beyond that point.
"We've said a thousand times that the last-16 round is not enough for us," Petkovic, 54, vowed at the weekend.
The Swiss public would seem to agree with that sentiment. After three unsuccessful attempts to make it to the quarterfinals in 12 years -- they were knocked out by Ukraine on penalties in 2006, fell victim to a goal from Angel Di Maria in 2014 and lost a shootout to Poland at the Euros two years ago -- further disappointment would not be well received at all.
Swiss tabloid Blick declared Switzerland would "not be worthy of the quarters if they failed 'the moose test'" against Sweden on Tuesday in St. Petersburg, while broadsheet Tages-Anzeiger framed the tie as an "do-or-die, all-or-nothing game that will determine the verdict on this generation: How good are they really?"
You don't have to read too much between the lines to understand that the chance to walk away from Russia as the biggest winners in modern history might well be the last one afforded to this current crop. If they don't deliver now that the competition has opened up and that key players such as Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri are at the peak of their powers, folks back home might not forgive them.
The unnervingly meek manner of the previous three exits has exhausted the public's patience. They demand Switzerland go beyond the mundane and expected -- Petkovic's goal of "a bare minimum of the last 16" -- toward dream territory for a change.
Support for the team back home would be much higher if the Nati hadn't shown itself prone to being overconfident a few days earlier.
"We were a little arrogant," Valon Behrami, the Udinese midfielder admitted after his team's sloppy 2-2 draw against Costa Rica in the final group game.
Switzerland's mix of hard-working pros and flamboyant individuals hasn't always looked as compelling on the pitch as it does on paper, their impressive two-year-run with a single defeat -- a 2-0 loss away to Portugal in the qualifiers -- notwithstanding. Speaking to members of the Swiss media, you get the feeling that nobody quite knows whether the side are as indeed as powerful as they believe themselves to be.
It's a thin line between conviction and overestimation, especially when objective markers are hard to come by. It's no secret that the Swiss federation have skilfully propped up their FIFA ranking (they're currently sixth, and have not been lower than 12th since 2012) by playing as few friendlies against bigger teams as possible.
In terms of individual class, they boast plenty of players in European clubs who are on the fringes of the continental elite -- such as Borussia Dortmund (defender Manuel Akanji) and Arsenal (Xhaka) -- but no world-beaters. Juventus veteran Stephan Lichtsteiner, aged 34 and on his way to Arsenal, isn't quite at that level anymore.
Sweden have a stronger collective ethos and more settled defence; Swiss skipper Lichtsteiner is suspended, as is Fabian Schar, the cultured Deportivo La Coruna centre-back. FC Basel's Michael Lang is expected to come in as more attacking full-back, while Schar's place will most likely be filled by Johan Djourou. The former Arsenal man, 31, will be at pains to avoid an unwelcome quadruple: He's featured in the previous three last-16 defeats.
The relatively kind draw aside, there's hope inside the camp that the enhanced togetherness they've fostered in Russia will push them that crucial bit further this time around. Only three years ago, Lichtsteiner had warned that it was "important for Swiss people to identify with the national team." Despite the right-back's insistence that he wasn't making a distinction "between real Swiss and other Swiss [players]," some felt he was questioning the allegiance of the so-called "Secondos" -- the children of immigrants who make up three-quarters of the current Nati squad.
The complex debate of identity was rekindled when Xhaka and Shaqiri greeted their goals in the win over Serbia with the "double eagle," a hand gesture that celebrates their Kosovar Albanian heritage. Both were fined, alongside Lichtsteiner, who had joined in with them. Blick and other Swiss media felt the celebrations were needlessly divisive, but paradoxically, FIFA's punishment for the trio -- they were fined a combined 25,000 Swiss francs -- served only to unify the squad.
"It's us against the world now," Lang said, while Lichtsteiner explained to Sonntagszeitung it had been his duty as captain "to show his support" for his colleagues and to defend "the Swiss values of solidarity and integration."
The newfound team spirit couldn't have come at a better time, because a title of sorts is truly at stake in the shadow of the Gazprom tower. The result in this match will decide whether they'll indeed break the mould to enter the history books as the golden generation, or merely come away with inverted commas instead.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein