Nineteen-ninety-four has a great deal of significance for Swiss football as a certain Roy Hodgson led the national team to their first World Cup finals in 26 years. But it was also the year when a nine-year-old Kosovan called Valon Behrami arrived in Switzerland with his parents to escape the war in their homeland.
They settled in Ticino in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and Behrami, now of Watford, soon joined a local athletics club and began to play football. When the Kosovo conflict ended in 1999, the Behramis were, under Swiss law, required to return to their motherland, but such was their young son’s popularity that his athletics club started a petition to allow him and his family to stay. It was around this time that a local TV network became interested in their predicament.
“I don’t want to leave the country,” a young Valon stated on camera. “Everything I know I learnt here. Now I also learnt how to read and write.” The authorities were persuaded to make an exception and the family went on to gain Swiss citizenship.
The Behramis were among hundreds of thousands of Balkan refugees, mainly of Albanian-Kosovan descent, to arrive in the country during the conflict. Almost half the Switzerland line-up against England tonight are likely to be of Balkan heritage and Behrami believes they carry a mental toughness that can benefit the team as a whole. “We come from a different mentality and we can help give a strong spirit to the team in difficult moments,” he says.
Behrami has also spoken of the debt he feels towards his adopted country. “I’ll always remember that time,” he says. “Every three or four months we’d receive a call from our family members still in Kosovo and the situation was not good. Often they told us they were escaping in the mountains. When I was 14, I went back to Kosovo and it was completely destroyed. It gave me a desire to change things for my family. When I became a footballer, I decided to give everything in every single game – to never give up.”
After he had progressed through the ranks of Swiss football, Behrami’s big break came in 2003 with a move to Italian side Genoa. His performances caught the eye of Lazio, where he remained for three years. Then came his first stint in England with West Ham in 2009, a period that began with great promise but was curtailed through persistent injuries and he left in 2011. In the years since, he has done the rounds of various top-level clubs in Italy and Germany, but on each occasion has quickly moved on.
Behrami describes his most recent continental sortie before returning to England – an 11-month spell with Hamburg – as “the most sad experience” of his career. “The team wasn’t good enough, they had a different approach to training, and I didn’t settle in the country at all. I also suffered a lot from injuries. I had a three-year contract, but I really wanted to leave because it wasn’t good for me, it wasn’t good for the club.”
In July, Watford came calling and his fond memories of England and the Premier League convinced him to return. How long he sticks around remains to be seen. His children are enrolled at an international school in central London and he claims to love almost everything about life in England, bar the weather.
Victory at Wembley, which would bring a place in next summer’s European Championship within Switzerland’s grasp, may be a less than gracious way to reacquaint the English public with him. But you cannot tame a warrior’s spirit – certainly not one who owes his life to his adopted nation.
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