The Multi-Kulti Question
How the Switzerland national team became part of the debate on immigration
The sixty-third minute of the World Cup final. A high inswinging corner comes in, the number nine rises highest at the back post and heads powerfully back across the keeper into the far corner of the net. He wheels away in rapture and disappears beneath a ruck of exultant teammates. It’s the only goal of the game.
Admittedly, it’s 2009 and it’s the Under-17 World Cup final. But that Haris Seferović goal, silencing a partisan home crowd of 60,000 horn-tooting Nigerians, the last to be scored in a tournament featuring the Spain of Isco, Koke and Iker Muniain and the Germany of Mario Götze, was how Switzerland notified international football of its coming generation. That 13 members of the victorious squad were Secondos, second-generation immigrants, was not missed by a national press quite unsure what to make of the brave new era of Swiss multi-kulti.
Many European countries have wrestled with the politics and practicalities of immigration, but few more than Switzerland, a nation of dreamy salaries and mountain views at the geographic heart of the continent, whose intelligent internationalism has long appeared to define its role in the world. Yet the little Alpine state grabbed global headlines in February when a countrywide referendum backed new quotas on migration from the European Union — the latest in a series of visibly rightward moves which had also included the removal of migrant jobseeker benefits and a controversial ban on building minarets. Next on the table, courtesy of an environmental lobby group calling itself Ecopop, is a motion to slash foreign population growth to a measly 0.2% a year; as a direction of travel, it’s pretty one-way stuff.
The success of the February bill caused widespread alarm. Bastions of Swiss industry, from banking giants to rural cheese-makers, formed an unorderly queue to hurl doom-laden predictions at the political establishment. Denial was a popular strategy: according to one CEO of a watch-making empire dependent on skilled French frontaliers, whose response was tantalisingly indicative of a flexible approach to legislation more widely: “I am not worried. The politicians will sort something out.”
Then things got nasty. The EU feigned surprise and froze a few hundred million Euros of university funding. Age-old linguistic divisions were exposed by the voting patterns — die Schweiz backing the quotas, la Suisse firmly against them—and, as tensions built, a damp-faced Didier Burkhalter, the federal president, was forced to slap down a journalist interrupting his speech to ask if he wouldn’t mind speaking more in German.
Accusations flew entertainingly back and forth across the Röstigraben, the country’s linguistic and ideological divide: “You do not have a monopoly on identity,” fumed a Genevan editorial at a Zürcher industrialist questioning the border city’s true Swissness. Over at the esteemed Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, meanwhile, a German professor gathered his papers, rose from his desk and left for home. “If the Swiss do not want us, let them see how they will get along without us,” he huffed.
Among the torrent of tweets in the restless hours after the vote — congratulations from Ukip and Marine Le Pen, outrage from Brussels, mock-ups of concrete roadblocks for sale at Ikea — was a cartoon showing the Swiss national team’s new formation, minus the influence of immigration. It showed the ageing Juventus defender Stephan Lichtsteiner playing on his own.
Of course, that was not strictly correct, and it was left to the German newspaper Die Welt to point out a few days later — via the slightly eerie medium of a team photo with greyed-out faces — that the Nati, as the Swiss team are known, should be able to muster at least three or four players on the pitch at any one time.
In fairness to the Swiss, if one were to speculate as to the point at which uncapped immigration might become an issue, then a foreign-born resident population of 25% and rising, in a land where vast swathes of mountainous land are off-limits for development, might well be it. And let’s douse a few smouldering logpiles up front by recognising that immigration quotas in themselves do not equate to xenophobia (many countries have them, after all); that the vote was carried by a microscopic majority of 0.3% and many believe it would fail if held again; that the cantons with the most foreigners were most against it, despite said foreigners being unable to vote; and that anti-EU sentiment is not exactly foreign territory across much of the continent, now that troubled institution is looking ever more Europa than Champions League on the world economic stage.
And it’s not as if the Swiss are yet emulating Qatar, a land where foreigners outnumber the natives by five to one, who are redressing the balance for 2022 with some mildly disturbing genealogical engineering, scrutinising the extended family trees of young hopefuls and filtering them based on their extent of unblemished Qatariness. (And this from a country that pinched Stephen Cherono, the Kenyan steeplechaser, rebranded him as Saif Saaeed Shaheen, and sat back and watched the medals and the foaming wrath of world athletics roll in.)
But nevertheless, Switzerland is a nation in which, thanks to a vocal and fearsomely co-ordinated minority of right-wingers, the mere word Ausländer — foreigners — is a frightfully loaded term; where antagonism towards the ‘Yugos’, an immigrant group from which at least six of the current national squad are drawn, can be as bitter as the winter weather; and where pockets of truly breathtaking conservatism exist almost as parallel life forms. Even at the mainstream level, the immigration debate is sharper-edged than foreign sensibilities might appreciate. Although delivered, for example, in unambiguously satirical tones with tongue firmly in virtual cheek, it’s noteworthy that the Lichtsteiner cartoon originated from SRF3, the radio branch of the national broadcasting network.
To what extent, then, does it matter that much of the visible, outward-looking face of Switzerland today is based on immigration? That 15 of the 21 players in the Nati squad for the March friendly versus Croatia were either foreign-born or had parents who were? That Stan Wawrinka’s grandfather came from Czechoslovakia via Germany after the war? That Iouri Podladtchikov, the Moscow-born snowboarder known as I-Pod who dethroned Shaun White in Sochi, only became Swiss after competing for Russia at the Turin Olympics in 2006? And that flagship Swiss industries, from banking to diplomacy to tourism, are wholly dependent on being nice to those dastardly foreigners?
Despite the diversions of ski racing and two active Grand Slam tennis champions — including, of course, the popular Wawrinka — football is indisputably the number one Swiss sport, and the Nati by extension the most cherished symbol of overseas success for a good chunk of the population. The squad’s renaissance over the past decade was initially based on solidity rather than spectacle, with their defence doing a passable impression of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau as it set a new record of 559 World Cup minutes without conceding a goal between 2006 and 2010. But where once their striking output relied on the likes of the dependably mundane Adrian Knup and Alex Frei, in recent times a dash of flair and creativity has propelled them forward and it’s not resorting to cliché to link that change fundamentally to immigration.
The first waves of the new generation came crashing ashore at that Under-17 World Cup in 2009, when Seferović’s header proved enough — with a fair dollop of luck in the final, it must be said — to seal Switzerland’s maiden world football crown. In time-honoured fashion, that side’s standout players have found senior progression tough going: Seferović, at 22, finds himself at Real Sociedad after being loaned out three times from Fiorentina; Pajtim Kasami, after spells at Palermo and Luzern, shows glimpses of his promise through a sea of mismanagement at Fulham; the playmaker Nassim Ben Khalifa is rebuilding at Grasshopper in his fourth loan spell from Wolfsburg in four years.
But despite their travails, the sea change in their landlocked nation’s youth system had taken hold. In 2011, the Under-21 side impressed en route to the final of the European Championships, where they were valiant in defeat to Spain — the likes of the midfielders Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka and the forwards Admir Mehmedi and Innocent Emeghara already, by that stage, full internationals. With the marauding Shaqiri, of Bayern, complementing experienced hands like the Napoli duo Gökhan Inler and Valon Behrami and a solid, uncomplicated defence, momentum was quick to build; a small flood of Secondo strikers, led by Josip Drmić, has more recently added an elusive cutting edge. Under the careful tutelage of the double Champions League-winning coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, the senior side have risen from forty-fourth to seventh in the world rankings, scalping Germany (2012) and Brazil (2013) in home friendlies and coasting through a modest World Cup qualifying group. The plastic balls of fate may so far have denied them a worthy platform to showcase their level, but with luck, their time will come in Brazil.
Basel is a city of 200,000 inhabitants on the banks of the Rhine, at the crossroads of three countries. A happy, arty kind of place, it’s mainly famous for its university, pretty old buildings and rampant pharmaceutical industry — and, of course, the fact that foreigners can’t quite agree how to pronounce it. Despite being the home town of Roger Federer — whom it’s practically illegal for Swiss newspapers, even German language ones, not to introduce with a French flourish as le Bâlois — and the nation’s best football team, FCB, it’s often viewed with suspicion by “real” Swiss elsewhere, as if its free-flowing diversity and location at the northernmost extremity of the land somehow undermines its patriotic worth. Most people hate the football team, for good measure.
It was in Basel that Murat Yakin was born to Turkish parents in 1973. His brother Hakan was born three years later. A cultured centre-half, Murat would become captain at his hometown club and win 49 caps for the Nati; Hakan, less a matador or a raging bull than a portable one-man bullfight of a centre forward, would better that with 87, notching 20 goals. Both men had spells abroad, including, in Murat’s case, in Turkey, but they never really worked out and yielded only homesickness, so both returned with elastic frequency to their homeland. Progressing seamlessly into management, first with lower-ranked Swiss teams and now back at St. Jakob-Park with FC Basel, Murat has propelled an elegant, progressive team to consistent exploits in the Champions League, disposing of Manchester United in 2012 and so impressive 12 months later against Chelsea that he forced Roman Abramovich to respond in the only way he knows how — by buying the most expensive model in the showroom, Mohamed Salah.
And so, thanks to the Yakins, there’s a bold thread of multi-kulti running through the modern history of Swiss football. Who are foreigners, indeed, to interrogate a country with a homegrown ethnic minority coach leading his club to Champions League acclaim? That’s more than the Premier League has managed, for sure. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the much-loved Kubilay Türkyilmaz, another Swiss-born player of Turkish descent who made his Nati debut in 1988 and ended it in 2001 as the country’s all-time record scorer. No one, no one disses Kubi.
Tucked between Lake Como and the Alps with sparkling lakes, lush green mountains and even its own shapely sugarloaf, Ticino — the sun-drenched, Italian-speaking part of Switzerland — is like a secret outpost of South America at the heart of Europe. Standing on top of Monte Bré admiring the view, it’s hard to resist the image of Bond villains and Godfather types lounging at the many hillside mansions dotted around the landscape. Fabio Capello lives here too.
Lugano, the main city, is set around a palm-fringed horseshoe bay and would surely figure highly on the list of best places to live in Europe, if only more people knew it was there. This is a place, you sense, where being amalgamated as an exotic footnote in the Swiss confederation, lost almost entirely to the international stage, suits people just fine, happily preserving the secret for residents to exploit. It’s not a place that opens its arms wide to immigrants, whether brotherly Italian or dreaded ‘Yugo’; 78%, more than anywhere else in the country, voted to curb migrant entry rights back in February. But nevertheless, this is a city where, in November 1989, a boy named Mario Gavranović was born to newly arrived Bosnian Croat parents.
Despite the dizzy scenery, the balmy weather and the comforting security of his home, childhood cannot have been easy for young Mario — who is now, at 24, a striker for FC Zürich and the Nati — as he learnt a language and amassed a portfolio of cultural reference points as novel to his émigré parents as they were to him. And as he strived to establish himself as a footballer in his debut season with hometown club AC Lugano in 2007, he would no doubt have glimpsed the striking artwork of an odious right-wing poster campaign splattered across the walls of his city. Even if, as a Swiss-born teenager, he may not have been its principal target, given the sentiment involved it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have felt very much the black sheep being hoofed over the border by three smirking white counterparts.
Young life must have been tough, indeed, for any number of the men now gracing the red jerseys of their adopted homeland with such verve. The poster boys Shaqiri and Xhaka, both foreign-born naturalised Swiss citizens, fled in the arms of Albanian parents from a simmering Yugoslavia as toddlers in the early nineties; over in Lachen, near Zurich, and Sursee, near Lucerne — very much the Swiss-German nationalist heartland — Drmić and Seferović were growing up in similar circumstances to Gavranović over in Ticino. To the surprise of no one with a working brain connected to a beating heart, all have laboured under the weight of dual identity: Seferović set his heart on Bosnia, the country of his parents’ birth, before being talked round; Drmić, a dual passport holder, admitted to “complex feelings” as he starred in a friendly against Croatia in March; Shaqiri apologised to no one for breaking down on the pitch in a World Cup qualifier versus Albania, the ethnic motherland of his Kosovan birthplace, Gjilan.
Of all the numerous and fascinating subtexts of this new Swiss team, none is indeed greater than the emergence of the fledgling Kosovo side, currently permitted by Fifa to play friendlies but not its national anthem. On paper, that side is fairly formidable; whether it will ever take to a competitive field is essentially at the mercy of the football authorities’ equally imposing team of geopolitical bureaucrats. Amid the dense fog of complexity, what is clear is that none of Behrami, Shaqiri and Xhaka — the foremost trio of players with Kosovan heritage — have entirely closed the door on a switch of allegiances, raising the prospect that they may yet come to run out alongside Adnan Januzaj and others in what would instantly become a credible major tournament side.
Time moves on. After six years guiding the Nati’s impressive development, Hitzfeld will retire after the World Cup this summer — happily in more harmonious circumstances than his professorial compatriot at Zurich university — to be replaced by the Sarajevo-born Vladimir Petković, most recently of Lazio. Hitzfeld knows where his team are going. “It’s the hardest decision of my life,” he said. But the new appointment feels symbolic of the new era. With playing and coaching spells at nine different Swiss clubs under his belt, Petković is a naturalised Swiss citizen. “I’ve spent 27 of 50 good years of life in Switzerland, which says enough about where I feel at home,” he said.
Times change, and in this country of enviable wealth, it doesn’t pay to deal in stereotypes. For one thing, considering their country is renowned internationally for a kind of sterile purity, Swiss football fans can be an impressively loutish bunch — as the mid-match missile-induced suspension of a Europa League tie between Basel and Salzburg back in March amply showed. For another, the Swiss youth development system is now fearfully unsympathetic. Acquaintances in Crans-Montana, the famous ski resort, recount horror stories of their son’s treatment at the academy of the lowly ranked Super League outfit FC Sion down in the valley; summoned at eight, trained to within an inch of his life, his parents denied any access to coaching staff to discuss his development, the boy was unceremoniously ditched without warning at twelve for being too skinny, with his schoolwork and self-confidence in something approaching tatters.
Perhaps Sion, who have gone through 30 coaches in 10 years, aren’t the best example of a progressive, long-term approach to human resources. But then again, when your country churns out Under-17 World Cup winners, perhaps you can afford to be tough. Even stereotypes don’t last for ever.
And so, when all’s said and done, what does it matter? That there’s a yawning, unbridgeable chasm between the internationalism and diversity of cities like Geneva and Basel and the conservative politics of the Swiss rural heartlands? Between the hero-worship of Muslim footballers and a national ban on minarets? Between footballing icons like Xhaka, Shaqiri and Behrami and the fledgling Kosovo side that might yet reclaim them? Between the distaste for ‘Yugos’ and a World Cup forward roster of men named Drmić, Seferović and Gavranović? Between the intractable fact that immigration in Switzerland has facilitated mass over-achievement, from finance to football, and the reality that much of the population is now supportive of bolting the doors?
Who knows? How many foreigners is too many? Across the border in France, the on-pitch success of the ‘black-blanc-beur’ era — as ludicrous as that term still sounds — hardly left a vibrant multi-racial harmony in its wake and taught us to be deeply wary of sporting symbolism distorting turbulent social realities. In Switzerland, there’s certainly a clash between a visible society and a hidden one, between a nation making its name as a sanctuary for the transnational elite and a core of traditionally anglophile people with a lingering pulse of British isolationism at their heart. But perhaps, just perhaps, the acceptance and reverence of the Nati shows a country more at ease with immigration and multi-kulti than is often perceived by the outside world.
As for the team, they’ll just have to put up with the politically charged baggage they carry around. But like Haris Seferović at the far post, they’ll continue to rise above it.
This article appeared on Episode Forty Three of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.