This World Cup has been the best anyone can remember thanks to teams throwing caution to the wind and playing an enterprising brand of attacking football, resulting in plenty of goals and entertaining matches.
Even the traditionally conservative Swiss have been caught up in the excitement, progressing to the second round thanks to a late victory against Ecuador, a 5-2 defeat against France and a convincing 3-0 victory over Honduras.
This has set up a date with Argentina in the last 16 on Tuesday and Switzerland’s performance has been lauded by the Swiss media, which says the ghosts of South Africa, where Switzerland exited the group stage despite beating eventual champions Spain, have been laid to rest.
Blick declared the team had “graduated with flying colours” and “The business is done, now for fun. We’ll dance a tango with Argentina.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung agreed, stating the team had “met its target” and could play their second round match without pressure. State broadcaster SFR speculates Switzerland have acquired 200 million Brazilian fans, hoping Die Nati can dump Argentina out of the competition.
There has been much praise for the likes of Josip Drmic, Ricardo Rodriguez and, most of all, Xherdan Shaqiri, dubbed the ‘Swiss Messi’ after his hat trick against France. But it will not escape most people’s attention that these names don’t sound traditionally Swiss.
Switzerland have the most multi-cultural squad of any team at the World Cup, with 15 players born outside of the country or having at least one foreign parent. This is no accident. Following the country’s failure to qualify for the 1998 World Cup in France, the Swiss FA were inspired by France’s victory and decided that Switzerland’s small population meant that no players could slip through the net – especially those of foreign origin.
Of the country’s estimated population of just over eight million people, it is believed that two million are not Swiss citizens. Italians are the largest single immigrant group with 303,385, according to the Swiss Federal Office for Migration, followed by Germans, Portuguese, French and Kosovars.
That’s a huge pool of potential players for the Swiss FA, who have endeavored to include players with dual-nationality in the national youth set-up and secure their commitment to Switzerland. In the past, Oliver Neuville and Roberto Di Matteo opted to play for Germany and Italy despite being born in Switzerland, while more recently, Aargau-born Ivan Rakitic pledged his International future to Croatia in 2007 having already turned out for the Swiss under-21 side.
The results have been significant. Roy Hodgson’s Swiss squad at the 1994 World Cup featured just one player with roots outside the country, while in 2006 there were eight such squad members. The Under-17 team which won the 2009 U-17 World Cup in Nigeria featured 13 players of foreign origin, and many, including Rodriguez, Granit Xhaka and Hans Seferovic, have graduated to the full squad and made vital contributions to Switzerland’s 2014 campaign.
But what makes the success of these players more curious is it is in stark contrast to the current political climate in the country.
The largest party in the Swiss parliament is the right-wing SVP (Swiss People’s Party), which has grown rapidly in the past few decades thanks to strong support from those who feel immigration is threatening Swiss values, while in February, voters in a national referendum narrowly voiced support for immigration quotas – even for foreigners from the European Union.
Players with foreign roots are plastered across advertising campaigns across the country, but some have problems with the mass-immigration that has returned the Swiss football team to international relevance.
Naturally, the SVP says it has no issue with the players in the Swiss national football team, adding it has “always” been happy for foreigners to come to the country if they integrate and work hard for the nation.
The Swiss FA believes its policy of including players with foreign roots is a model that can be exported to other countries wanting to promote integration, but some observers are unconvinced and believe that the unique social characteristics of the landlocked country have resulted in the current team.
Fabien Ohl, a sports sociologist at Lausanne University, told SwissInfo, that football isn’t the most main sport in Switzerland, with ice hockey and skiing both more popular. However, these sports are more expensive to participate in, and immigrants find football cheaper to play and feel they can have more influence.
Ohl also warns that the positivity surrounding the current team could disappear should Switzerland fail spectacularly and their differences exposed, just like what happened when in France when its players went on strike in 2010.
However with Switzerland securing safe passage to the second round of a major tournament for just the second time in 20 years, the immediate possibility of such a change in opinion is unlikely – even if they are thrashed by the much-fancied Argentinians.
The Kosovo question
A more medium-term threat could be the International status of Kosovo, from which three of the Swiss squad, Valon Beharmi, Shaqiri and Xhaka, have roots. All three signed a petition to allow Kosovo to play friendly matches in September 2012, and the nation played its first non-competitive International on 5 March this year against Haiti.
More than 100 countries recognise Kosovo as independent, including 37 UEFA members, however the ongoing opposition of Serbia, and its close ally Russia, make United Nations membership unlikely at this stage, meaning FIFA recognition is also impossible.
Until it receives full status, Kosovo has said it will not pursue players who are involved with other national setups, but says it will open the door to them if and when it can play competitive internationals.
Swiss tabloid SonntagsBlick once ran a front page with a picture of Shaqiri and the headline “The Fear of Kosovo”, suggesting three of the Swiss teams’ best players could be tempted away. The Bayern Munich player wears boots with the Swiss, Albanian and Kosovar flag and did not celebrate a goal against Albania (around 90 percent of Kosovo’s population is ethnically Albanian) during the qualification campaign.
Furthermore, when his club won the Champions League in 2013, Shaqiri wore the flags of both Switzerland and Kosovo, but he is more guarded about his intentions when asked. He has gone on record as saying that he would evaluate the situation should his place of birth ever be granted FIFA membership but added it is not a problem at present.
He is right of course, and such speculation should not dampen the Swiss achievement. This young team have righted the wrongs of the 2010 campaign and the failure to qualify for Euro 2012 and they are much more exciting than the class of 2006, who exited the World Cup in the second round despite not conceding a single goal.
Anyone who had the bad luck to watch their final game against Ukraine (all 120 minutes of it, followed by an awful penalty shoot-out) will know how fortunate that is.