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Switzerland: who are you calling neutral?

Switzerland's win over Spain is the biggest shock of the World Cup so far, and it's turned this normally reserved nation upside down. Ahead of today's game against Chile, Tony Paterson reports from Zurich

The bar in Zurich's narrow Niederdorfstrasse had been turned into a garish jungle of hundreds of familiar red and white Swiss national flags and banners bearing the bewildering slogan "Hopp Schwiiz!" – the Swiss-German soccer chant which means something along the lines of: "Come On Switzerland!".

In the back of the low-beamed pub, drinkers quaffed foaming glass jugs of pale Swiss beer and gazed expectantly at six TV monitors screening the opening stages of last Saturday night's World Cup game between Cameroon and the undeniably WASP-looking Denmark. It soon became clear which team was the drinkers' favourite.

The African team's goal in the opening minutes brought howls of excited laughter. But when Denmark scored its equaliser, the camera flashed on to Danish supporters in the South African stadium brandishing more red and white flags, their faces painted red and bearing white crosses just like their Swiss counterparts a few days earlier.

The similarity with Switzerland was not to be missed. Nor was the affinity: "Come on the Red Whites!" boomed one drinker, to loud cheers. "I suppose the Swiss prefer to support the Danish," Urs, a Swiss construction engineer watching the game, told The Independent. "After all they are more European aren't they?" Predictably, the drinkers were ecstatic when Denmark went on to win. "It's a good omen for the Red Whites!" shouted the man at the end of the bar.

To say that the tax-haven home of Heidi – and triangular chocolate bars, fugitive Polish film directors and xenophobic politics – is in the grip of World Cup fever would be to rather underestimate Switzerland's national mood. Since the country's stunning 1-0 win against European champions Spain in Durban last Wednesday, the Alpine state has been basking in a state of national soccer euphoria not experienced for decades. "Now we are champions of Europe!" and "Chocolate beats Paella", the headlines proclaimed. They called it the "Miracle of Durban".

On that fateful Wednesday last week, Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse, a district renowned for prostitution and heroin addicts, experienced an outburst of national Swiss joy and triumph as a spontaneous hooting motorcade of flag-waving fans careered through the district. Swiss key rings, T-shirts, banners and baby clothes in the national colours have gone on sale across the country.

Migros, Switzerland's largest supermarket chain, responded by offering all its customers a 10 per cent reduction on anything they bought, and turnover has since increased by nearly half.

Tonight the Swiss side faces its next important challenge with a game against Chile. Yet even as that unnerving fixture approaches, there has been no let up in the euphoria. In the Sonntagszeitung newspaper yesterday, the former national trainer Daniel Jeandupeux felt it appropriate to eulogise the qualities of the Swiss side in unprecedented terms: "They perform like a boxer who never drop his guard, who dodges the left hook and regains the initiative," he opined. "They have an unbreakable will, lasting self control, calmness and discipline, efficiency and realism. They are like a computer which, given the choice between two options, almost always selects the right answer."

The last time the national football team enjoyed such an outpouring of support, much of the credit went to an Englishman, Roy Hodgson. Back in 1994, Hodgson – now enjoying similar underdog feats at Fulham – took the unfancied side, which hadn't made it to the World Cup since 1966, to the round of 16. He earned national adulation as a result.

This time around the mastermind is an equally beloved German, Ottmar Hitzfeld. The modest 61-year-old rose to fame as coach for the renowned German side Bayern Munich before agreeing to take on Switzerland in 2008. If the popular Zurich daily Blick had its way, Hitzfeld would be fast on the way to beatification: "Saint Ottmar – thank you Lord that this extra-terrestrial trainer has landed in Switzerland again," the paper wrote in an editorial. "To thank him we should grant him Swiss citizenship or make him a saint."

Yesterday the Sonntagszeitung followed up with interviews with business leaders who heaped more praise on the German trainer.

With Swiss soccer evidently a subject of global interest, the popular Sunday Sonntag CH conducted interviews with six sports journalists from papers ranging from the New York Times to Germany's popular Bild and the Mail on Sunday to gauge their opinions on Switzerland's chances. Most thought Hitzfeld's side had an outside chance of making it to the quarter finals, but no further.

Switzerland is clearly enjoying its unprecedented outburst of soccer excitement, a more positive outlet for the national pride that has sometimes caused trouble in the past. For much of the past decade the country has been the focus of media attention because of its xenophobic politicians and public displays of religious intolerance. In December last year Switzerland became the first country in Europe to ban Muslims from erecting minarets at the country's handful of mosques.

In 2007, Switzerland again stoked international criticism after the right-wing Swiss People's Party, the country's largest political grouping, fought for re-election with a virulently anti-foreigner campaign against so-called "criminal immigrants". The party's poster depicted white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss national flag. The UN condemned the poster as racist. Nevertheless the Swiss People's Party went on to secure one of its biggest majorities.

One of the ironies of Swiss xenophobia, and doubtless one of its causes, is Switzerland's large immigrant population. Most Swiss admit that the country would not be able to function without the armies of Third World and European immigrants who do the low-paid menial jobs that Swiss-born citizens would not touch.

Zurich, Switzerland's largest city, has such a varied population that the World Cup season is punctuated by regular street parties held by immigrants from the countries of winnings teams. One member of the World Cup team who proves the country is not as monolithic as the xenophobes might like is Gelson Fernandes, the former Manchester City player and Cape Verde resident who scored the spectacular winning goal in last week's "Miracle of Durban".

The 23-year-old Fernandes has the sort of immigrant background Swiss xenophobes like to exploit for their own political ends. His impoverished father worked as a cow herd when he first arrived in Switzerland. Gelson joined him from Cape Verde when he was five. Nowadays he returns to the islands each year for holidays. And yet his adopted country appears to have fallen in love with him.

"I am Swiss, but I know where I come from and I know how much my family suffered in the past," he said in an interview published in Switzerland yesterday. "Life was not easy for them. It's one of the reasons why I run so hard when I am on the pitch. I know what a great opportunity it is for me to be a professional player. I will never forget this."

Underdogs have their day

Brazil 1950: England 0 – 1 USA

Although 500-1 against, the amateur Americans (including a knitting-machinist and hearse-driver) beat the hot favourites.

England 1966: Italy 0 – 1 North Korea

North Korea's only Word Cup appearance before this year came in England, with a stunning victory over Italy that earned a place in the quarter-final against Portugal. The underdogs went 3-0 up against the Portuguese, only to lose 5-3.

West Germany 1974: East Germany 1 – 0 West Germany

The only team to beat the eventual winners, East Germany won against their great rival thanks to Jürgen Sparwasser's late goal.

Italy 1990: Argentina 0 - 1 Cameroon

A header from Francois Oman-Biyik ensured a shock victory against the World Cup holders, and Roger Milla's men became the first African team to reach the quarter-finals.

Japan and South Korea 2002: Italy 1 – 2 South Korea

Seol Ki-Hyeon sent the game into extra time before a golden goal from Anh Jung-Hwan kicked Italy out of the finals. The host nation eventually lost in the semis.