Switzerland at the World Cup Is the Swiss Team Really Swiss?

The Swiss World Cup team is causing a national uproar, representing as it does a country in the throes of radical change. Almost half the team's players are from immigrant families.

By in Freienbach, Switzerland


Swiss national trainor Jakob "Köbi" Kuhn: "Let's go, Switzerland!"
AP

Swiss national trainor Jakob "Köbi" Kuhn: "Let's go, Switzerland!"

The village of Freienbach, on the south shore of Lake Zurich, isn't exactly known as the site of large gatherings of people. Some of the typical high points of village life are the local canton's athletics festival and church services offering car blessings. But all that changed last week when the village was temporarily transformed into a national pilgrimage site, with thousands converging on the local sports arena almost daily. The vocal and visibly energized crowd had come to Freienbach to watch 23 sweating young men hard at work -- the players on the Swiss national football team, affectionately dubbed the "Nati," who were busy preparing for the World Cup.

Switzerland's football fans experienced their last dose of excitement when their team easily trounced the Chinese 4:1 in a World Cup test match in Zurich. After the match, the players ran a victory lap around the stadium to cheers of "Hopp Schwiiz" ("Let's go, Switzerland!"). But for Swiss fans these weren't words of encouragement -- they were marching orders.

The normally taciturn Swiss have shown an uncharacteristically excitable side of their personalities recently. For the first time the country, fragmented into 26 cantons and four language zones, has discovered football as a vehicle for awakening patriotic emotions.

A major Swiss bank's ad campaign is perhaps the most telling reflection of this charged atmosphere. One of the ads depicts a player wearing the national jersey. Standing in a packed stadium with his arms on his hips, he gazes heroically into the distance, as if he were capable of anything, even winning the World Cup. A fan kneels at his feet, eagerly tying his shoelaces. The tag line firmly declares "All of Switzerland Supports the Nati."

A pair of twins are also part of the team: Swiss sexy heartthrobs Philipp Degen (left) and his brother David.
AFP

A pair of twins are also part of the team: Swiss sexy heartthrobs Philipp Degen (left) and his brother David.

The last time the Swiss participated in a World Cup -- in the United States in 1994 -- the Swiss team was just happy to have qualified. The team was modest and unassuming, and even at the 2004 UEFA European Football Championship in Portugal, the players were on the whole undemanding. "We were too hesitant," says Raphaël Wicky, a pro with Hamburg SV and, at 29, one of the national team's oldest members, "but that's changed radically." This year's World Cup marks the first major international competition to which the Swiss have sent a team blessed with an abundance of talent -- both technically and tactically. And their confidence is indeed justified. Some of the team's young players, Philippe Senderos and Tranquillo Barnetta, for example, already played together in the team of new players that became U17 European champions four years ago in Denmark.

Improving the team's makeup

The Swiss also have plenty of international experience. Seventeen of the 23 pros on the World Cup team are under contract abroad, some with such well-known teams as Arsenal London, Olympique Lyon and AC Milan. Before the Swiss team's matches against France, Togo and South Korea, Coach Jakob Kuhn, 62, nicknamed "Köbi," dryly announced that "anything but the qualification for the eighth final would be a disappointment."

The coach is sitting in the lobby of a Zurich hotel, thoughtfully discussing the "targeted improvement of our playing system." Since taking on the job of national coach in 2001 Kuhn -- a former professional player with FC Zurich and considered Switzerland's best footballer in the 1960s and early 1970s -- has continuously improved the makeup of the team. The results of his efforts have been palpable, with Switzerland losing only one of its last 19 matches.

Kuhn's modest public persona and his affable treatment of his players have made the Zurich native, who has been living in the city's lower-income Wiedikon neighborhood since childhood, perhaps the most popular Swiss citizen today. Suddenly Kuhn is everywhere, doing TV ads for an energy company, a bank and food giant. He has even rolled up his sleeves in ads promoting the domestic farming industry, ads in which he announces that "our farmers are natural talents." Kuhn, says Zurich marketing expert Dominique von Matt, is "the incarnation of traditional Swiss values."

A team of immigrants

If the coach embodies classic Swiss ideals like solidarity and modesty, his team represents modern Switzerland -- a country no longer desperately obsessed with its unique political and economic position in Europe.

Almost half the team's players are second-generation members of immigrant families, the so-called "secondos." Just as the French team has beefed itself up with professionals born in North Africa or the Caribbean, today's Swiss team is a multicultural organization. As such, it also reflects the makeup of a society in which one in five members is an immigrant.

Defender Djourou (right) during a May friendly against Italy.
AP

Defender Djourou (right) during a May friendly against Italy.

Defense player Philippe Senderos, 21, has a Serbian mother and a Spanish father. The family of midfielder player Blerim Dzemaili, 20, comes from Kosovo. The parents of midfielder Ricardo Cabanas, 27, are Spaniards, and the family of defense player Johan Djourou, 19, who normally plays for Arsenal London, comes from the Ivory Coast.

"We're hungrier," says midfielder Valon Behrami, a prototype of the Secondos generation, for which football has offered a path to social advancement.

When he was five, Behrami's parents fled with him and his sister from the Serbian portion of Kosovo to Switzerland's Ticino Canton. His father, a sales manager at a plastics factory back home, took a job as a laborer, while his mother earned a living as a cleaning woman. When the family applied for asylum four years later, it was turned down and they faced the prospect of deportation. But the Behramis were ultimately permitted to stay in Switzerland, due in large part to the influence of former Tessin state council member Alex Pedrazzini, whose son had played football on the same village team as young Valon.

Behrami has since become a star in Italy's Series A league. At 18, he went from FC Lugano to second-tier league team FC Genoa, at 19 he moved to Hellas Verona, and at 20 Lazio Rome signed him for a €6.4 million ($8 million) transfer fee.

Behrami has made it to a place of his dreams -- the world of the nouveau riche -- and tabloids routinely paint him as Switzerland's answer to David Beckham. But Behrami has done plenty on his own to help cultivate the clichéd image of the football star cum playboy. His bleach-blonde hair is soaked in gel, he sports large tattoos on his lower arms, he's usually seen in public with a mobile phone pressed to his ear and even his hobbies seem almost written into the script: from shopping to driving around in his two expensive cars, a BMW and a Porsche.

At the Nati's training camp in Freienbach, Behrami was among the players with the greatest stamina when it came to signing autographs after training sessions, posing for photos and being the target of the adoring screams of young, female fans.

But another side of Behrami that was clearly in evidence during World Cup training on Lake Zurich was his persistence in fighting his way to the top. During a relaxed game on a smaller pitch, he once crashed into the legs of replacement goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, who was in possession of the ball at the time. After a few minutes of treatment, the limping goalkeeper was finally taken to the locker room, accompanied by two team doctors. Behrami didn't apologize.

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