Switzerland vs France: Culture combinations helping Swiss mix it with the big boys

Immigrants from former Yugoslavia have added new dimension to Swiss game

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The Independent Football

After the dust had begun to settle on Switzerland’s last-gasp victory against Ecuador last Sunday, the Zurich-based tabloid Blick made a telling observation. It was a triumph, the paper noted, which illustrated perfectly the make-up of Ottmar Hitzfeld’s national side.

A country where “the most common surnames are Müller, Meier and Schmid”, Blick said, was now celebrating a victory delivered by goals from Admir Mehmedi and Haris Seferovic – the former born in Macedonia, the latter a son of Bosnian parents who a year ago opted for the country of his birth rather than that of his forebears.

This is the reality of 21st-century Swiss football. A referendum in February may have narrowly approved stricter laws on immigration yet the Nati’s starting XI in Brasilia featured seven players eligible for other countries. It is much the same story across the Alps in France, of course, and when these neighbours meet today in their second Group E fixture here in Salvador – where victory for either would secure a last-16 place – the world will witness two very modern European football nations.

France’s story has been well told already: this is the country which felt, however briefly, the unifying force of a 1998 World Cup triumph inspired by a son of Algerian immigrants, Zinedine Zidane, and featuring four players in the final born outside the country – Marcel Desailly, Christian Karembeu, Lilian Thuram and Patrick Vieira.

Today’s France squad has much the same mix with two players born beyond “l’Hexagone” in Patrice Evra and Rio Mavuba, and another eight born in France from immigrant families.

Where France owe their multinational flavour to the former colonies – for instance, the family of Karim Benzema, scorer of two goals against Honduras on Sunday, is Algerian – Switzerland’s case is quite different, with many of these “new Swiss” the product of immigration from the former Yugoslavia as it fragmented in the 1990s.

One such player is Valon Behrami, born in modern-day Kosovo to Albanian parents. Now at Napoli, the one-time West Ham midfielder played an instrumental part in the triumph over Ecuador, making a goal-saving tackle in his own penalty area, then setting in motion the move which, 15 or so seconds later, produced Seferovic’s decisive strike.

Sitting in a beach bar this week beside the Swiss squad’s base in the Bahian resort of Porto Seguro, Behrami was asked to ponder whether he felt more Kosovan or Swiss. It was in Porto Seguro that the Portuguese first landed in Brazil, starting a rather different history of immigration, but with locals in swimwear taking pictures on mobile phones just a few feet away, this felt an incongruous setting for a complicated question.

Behrami, one of the senior figures in Hitzfeld’s squad, did his best. “It is a positive thing,” said the Napoli player, who has signed a petition asking for Kosovo’s national team to gain full recognition. “I have the Kosovan character but I am Swiss in my head, in my way of living. It’s a mix.”

Just like the team’s exciting playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri and No 10 Granit Xhaka, Behrami did not sing the national anthem when they faced Albania in World Cup qualifying (and indeed Shaqiri – wearing boots with the flags of Albania, Kosovo and Switzerland stitched into them – did not celebrate after scoring). Behrami added: “We’ve spoken a lot about the national team and singing the anthem but that doesn’t affect anything – the important thing is I give everything out on the pitch.”

He is not the only one and this combination of cultures has undoubtedly helped the Switzerland team grow, as he acknowledged to The Independent. “The culture of our football is Swiss, we have done all our work in Switzerland and they’ve given us the chance to play at this level [but] we perhaps bring a different spirit, a street footballer spirit.”

Ricardo Rodriguez, who claimed assists for both goals against Ecuador, is the son of a Spanish father and Chilean mother and he concurs, telling me that the blend of football cultures within Hitzfeld’s squad “helps us as everyone is a bit different. We all have our own character but together we all want to win.”

Rodriguez was in the Switzerland side that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2009, playing alongside Xhaka and Seferovic, who hit the only goal of the final against Nigeria. In 2011, meanwhile, it was Shaqiri and Mehmedi who shone as the Swiss reached the European U21 Championship final.

This generation of players have helped Switzerland qualify for a third successive World Cup for the first time and what strikes Hitzfeld, their 65-year-old coach, is their boldness. He once cited the example of Xhaka, the Borussia Mönchengladbach player, and his fearless attitude when handed his national team debut against England at Wembley in 2011. “I asked him ‘Are you up for this?’ and he said ‘Why not? Do you not think I can do it?’”

An estimated quarter of Switzerland’s eight million population is foreign but according to a Swiss FA spokesman in Porto Seguro, there has been no specific policy of targeting young players from the immigrant communities. One reasonable assumption is that in a wealthy country like Switzerland, the children of poorer, immigrant families have focused on football while children from the large middle class can afford to pursue other, more expensive sporting options.

It has not always paid off, with some immigrant sons opting for their mother country – notably Ivan Rakitic, who played for Switzerland at Under-17 and Under-19 level and is at this tournament with Croatia. The view of some within the national association is that they should receive a compensation fee in these cases. Behrami, for one, is offering payback of a different kind. “I play to give something back to Switzerland, for the chance Switzerland has given me.”