NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- As a group stage full of disbelief approaches its dramatic conclusion and the knockout rounds loom, longtime World Cup devotees know that there is one reality about which we can be all but certain: There will be an interloper.
There always is. As the World Cup has expanded in size (and the accessibility to top leagues has expanded), the result is a showpiece tournament that nearly always sees one or more teams from outside the established football powers stay longer than expected on the sport's biggest stage.
In 2002, it was South Korea going to the semifinals; in 2006, Ukraine in the quarters; in 2010, Ghana was a last-minute missed penalty away from the semis; and four years ago, Costa Rica shockingly made the final eight in Brazil.
With this year's tournament having a particularly open feel (has any team looked dominant?), the possibilities seem especially varied. But in looking for a team that has the standard ingredients to make such a run -- a strong defense, an enigmatic star and a goalkeeper running hot -- there is, for your consideration, Switzerland.
"This championship is full of surprises," said Blerim Dzemaili, a Swiss midfielder. "And I think we can be the team of surprise."
Why not? On Wednesday, the Swiss finished off their opening round with a fairly unremarkable 2-2 draw with Costa Rica. It was not a perfect performance by any stretch, but Switzerland needed only a point to advance after turning in strong showings in holding Brazil to a 1-1 draw and beating Serbia 2-1 in its first two games.
And, over the course of their three matches, the Swiss players variously displayed the weapons that make them dangerous. Against Brazil, they were resolute in defense, cynical when necessary (Stephan Lichtsteiner, Fabian Schar and Valon Behrami were all booked for challenges on Neymar) and then took advantage of a sliver of an opening to steal an equalizer in the second half off of a set piece. They absorbed 21 shots from the Brazilians and offered only six of their own. But they left level.
Against Serbia, they relied on similar grit as well as their wily star midfielder, Xherdan Shaqiri, who slipped through Serbia's offside trap and scored in the 90th minute to give Switzerland the victory. Shaqiri then added controversy to jubilation when he made a politically charged hand gesture, which led to fines -- but not suspension -- for him and two other players who made similar gestures.
Shaqiri, who currently plays for Stoke City but is almost certain to move on this summer, is playing in his third World Cup despite being only 26. He is Switzerland's talisman, to be sure, the kind of player who usually injects energy and verve into a game, revving its motor.
He had a few scattered moments against Costa Rica -- a nutmeg of Bryan Oviedo early on was particularly wry -- but was outshined, at least on the scoresheet, by Dzemaili and substitute Josip Drmic, in addition to the outstanding performance of goalkeeper Yann Sommer.
Sommer, who plays for Borussia Monchengladbach and, on the side, has a very popular gourmet-food blog, was outstanding. He smoothly weathered an early surge from Costa Rica (who entered the game as the last team yet to score here), and made what could end up being the save of the tournament when he dove down low to his right and, at full stretch, palmed away Celso Borges' downward header from close range.
Sommer looked sure-handed and confident and could hardly be blamed for either goal. Kendall Waston's was on a point-blank header and the second was a cruel own goal as Bryan Ruiz's late penalty deflected off the crossbar, hit Sommer's back and ended up in the back of the net. As Keylor Navas carried Costa Rica in Brazil four years ago, Sommer's quality will be crucial in how far Switzerland can go here in Russia.
"He saved us on two or three occasions," Dzemaili said. "We know we have a great goalkeeper. We know it's important."
Switzerland's coach, Vladimir Petkovic, said reaching the round of 16 was the "minimum objective" the team had set for itself. He also acknowledged that losing Lichtsteiner and Schar to yellow-card suspension for the next game, which will be Tuesday against Sweden, wasn't ideal. But the Bosnian-born coach still believes Switzerland can push on without them and -- he hopes -- reach a World Cup quarterfinal for the first time since 1954.
"We are quite ambitious," Petkovic said. "We want more and more as we move along, and it's very important for us to show that."