Switzerland's unlikely World Cup heroes

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Berne

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A hat-trick by Xherdan Shaqiri (C) against Honduras sent the Swiss through into the last 16

The name of Switzerland's most famous historical hero is, of course, William Tell. More recently, a man called Roger Federer has joined the hall of fame.

Few, though, would have predicted that the latest hero to make Swiss hearts swell with pride would be called Xherdan Shaqiri - not to mention his team-mates, Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka, Haris Seferovic, or Admir Mehmedi.

They are all members of Switzerland's national football team, currently ranked sixth in the world, and set to take on Argentina in the last 16 of the World Cup in Brazil.

They are all Muslims, in a country which very recently voted to ban minarets.

And they are all immigrants or the children of immigrants to Switzerland, where voters in February backed strict new quotas on immigration.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Swiss team during the 1994 World Cup featured Stephane Chapuisat (Far R) and Alain Sutter (2nd L)

Just 20 years ago, when Switzerland played in the World Cup in the United States, its team members sounded rather different: Marc Hottinger, Alain Sutter, Stephane Chapuisat, Jurg Studer. So why have things changed so much?

In the 1970s and 80s, Switzerland actively recruited workers from what was then Yugoslavia. The idea of course was that just the men would come, and, once their work was finished, they would go home.

But the best laid plans of Swiss industry did not foresee the implosion of Yugoslavia, the civil war in Bosnia, where Haris Seferovic was born, or the crisis in Kosovo, originally home to Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, and Valon Behrami.

Many of those temporary workers became permanent; some were granted refugee status, their families joined them.

Switzerland in numbers

•Population: 8 million

•Foreign population: 23%

•Swiss citizens with immigrant background: 12%

•80,000 immigrants in 2013

•Unemployment rate 3.2% (EU 10.9%)

Today, there are almost half a million people of Balkan origin in Switzerland. And among the country's total population of eight million, almost two million are not Swiss.

Perhaps it should not be a surprise, then, to see how many nations are represented in the Swiss team.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Gokhan Inler (Bottom L), whose parents are Turkish, captains the team

Goalkeeper Diego Benaglio's roots lie in Italy, Ricardo Rodriguez has a Spanish father and a Chilean mother, while captain Gokhan Inler's parents are Turkish.

Prejudice and discrimination

But many Swiss have been slow to come to terms with such a demographic change. Life has not always been easy for young people uprooted from their homes by war, making their way in a new country which has been, at times, unwelcoming.

When Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami were growing up in Switzerland, a poster from the right-wing Swiss People's Party appeared. It read simply "Kosovo-Albaner Nein", or "Kosovar Albanians No".

Image caption,
A poster from the right-wing Swiss People's Party

It was a campaign against public funding for integration centres for immigrants from Kosovo, and it cannot have made comfortable reading for Switzerland's future football stars.

Over the last decade, regular campaigns by the People's Party, against immigration, or against relaxing Switzerland's strict laws on citizenship, have targeted the Balkan community, and in particular the Kosovar Albanians.

A succession of party posters blamed them for everything from rising crime, to drug dealing, to speeding offences, and falling educational standards.

Image caption,
Swiss voters in February narrowly backed quotas for immigration from EU countries - prompting this tweet

And while many Swiss publicly expressed shame at such open prejudice, in the privacy of the polling booth, many support the party, voting in favour of limiting immigration, and even banning minarets.

And there is evidence of more systematic discrimination. Studies by the Swiss Federal Commission on Racism showed that young people with Balkan surnames had a far smaller chance of getting a job or an apprenticeship than those with Swiss names.

So stark was the divide that Zurich introduced a regulation requiring employers to assess applications for apprenticeships without knowing the names of the candidates.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
When the Swiss football team for Brazil 2014 was named, it was hailed as a success for integration

Successful integration?

So when the Swiss football team for Brazil 2014 was named, many hailed the multicultural squad as a success, at last, for integration.

Others simply hoped for a good attacking side and some football flair from a national team, which, in the past, has often been accused of boring play.

The Swiss media lost no time getting to know the new team members - and the reactions from the players have been very interesting.

As a rising star on the Swiss football scene, Xherdan Shaqiri was asked about his origins.

"I'm a Kosovar Albanian," was his answer, firmly identifying himself with a group which he knows very well has been demonised by some sections of Swiss society.

More recently, last December, he was asked how he celebrated Christmas.

"I'm a Muslim," he said with a smile. "So we don't celebrate it so much, but my little sister loves to have a Christmas tree, so we always get one of those."

Granit Xhaka meanwhile told a Swiss newspaper: "We play for Switzerland and we are proud to give our all." Asked though what music he would be listening to on the bus to the first World Cup match, he answered: "Albanian songs."

For Josip Drmic, it was Balkan music, while Haris Seferovic likes Bosnian songs before a big match, Ricardo Rodriguez listens to Spanish ballads, and Diego Benaglio is sure "it won't be alphorns".

The message is pretty clear: we are here, we are Swiss, we are proud to play for Switzerland, but do not ask us to abandon our culture.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Granit Xhaka (L) and his team-mate Shaqiri both tweet in Albanian

All of them have Swiss citizenship of course. They have lived in Switzerland all, or nearly all, their lives.

But they have loyalties to their origins too: Shaqiri and Xhaka tweet in Albanian. Both are fiercely proud of Kosovo, and have their pictures taken, from time to time, with its blue and gold flag, or with Albania's double-headed eagle.

These ties clearly still irritate some Swiss. When the team got off to a rocky start in Brazil, the criticism was quick, and nasty: "Can these boys even sing the national anthem?" fumed one commentator.

But the criticism soon evaporated when Shaqiri scored a hat trick against Honduras, ensuring Switzerland goes through to the last 16.

Whatever happens in the next match, this team will have sent a message back home to their fellow Swiss.

Shaqiri, Benaglio, Inler, Rodriguez, Drmic, Seferovic, Xhaka - this is the sound of 21st-Century Switzerland, where Balkan beat club nights can outsell techno or house, where the supermarkets stock Turkish beer, Serbian biscuits and Portuguese salt cod next to the fondue and Ovaltine.

And if Shaqiri does put one past Argentina on Tuesday, he will do it with three tiny flags sewn into his boots: Swiss, Kosovar and Albanian. The goal, though, will be Switzerland's.

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