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"Swiss On Paper Only"? Identity, Immigration and the Swiss National Team

When Switzerland line up at Euro 2016, their national team will have a distinctly multiracial identity. Does that suggest that Swiss society is well integrated, or is it merely superficial?
EPA Images/Georgios Kefalas

The Swiss People's Party are famous for their posters. And despite being colourful cartoons, their messages tend not to be very friendly. Earlier this year, ahead of a national referendum on whether Switzerland should expel, without trial, foreigners who commit two crimes – any crimes, even traffic violations – within a 10-year period, the Swiss People's Party (SVP) plastered public spaces with billboards showing a gang of white sheep kicking a black sheep back over the border.


Other hits from the SVP's back catalogue include a shadowy, burqa-clad woman foregrounded against a black throng of spear-like minarets jutting up through Switzerland's red and white flag, and a crowd of variously coloured hands reaching hungrily into a pile of Swiss passports. Back in 2007, the UN's Human Rights Council claimed the posters "provoke racial and religious hatred". Today the SVP are the most popular party in Switzerland, whose success in last year's elections means it now holds 54 of 200 seats at the national council.

Against this backdrop, then, the makeup of Switzerland's national team makes for interesting reading. While 20 years ago, every member of the squad was born in the country, the most recent selection included players born in Germany, the Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Cameroon and the former Yugoslavia.

Xherdan Shaqiri was born in Gjilan, eastern Kosovo // EPA Images/Jean-Christophe Bott

And that only tells half the story. Switzerland's star player, Xherdan Shaqiri (who missed that squad due to injury) was also born on Yugoslavian territory, to Kosovar Albanian parents. He plays for Switzerland with the Kosovar and Albanian flags stitched into his boots, alongside the Swiss cross. The country's joint second-top scorers in qualifying (behind Shaqiri) were Haris Seferovic and Josip Drmic, of Bosnian and Croatian extraction respectively. The list goes on: Gokhan Inler, who captained Switzerland at the Brazil World Cup, is from a Turkish background; Eren Derdiyok's parents were Kurds who migrated from Turkey; Pajtim Kasami's parents are from Macedonia; Valon Behrami's from Albania.


The SVP's rise may have brought the issues sharply into focus, but hard-right views are not new to the Swiss mainstream: two years ago, voters backed a referendum proposal to harshen restriction quotas for immigrants entering the country. In 2009, a proposal to ban the construction of any new minarets in Switzerland – "a symbol of Islamic power" according to the SVP general secretary – was backed by 57% of voters.

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If the SVP aims to tap into a certain unease within Swiss society then their success offers an idea of just how widespread that unease is. It is certainly at odds with the national stereotype of cohesion and harmony.

"Broadly speaking, the general mood amongst the country's hard left and hard right is fairly evenly split," says Diccon Bewes, a British expat in Switzerland and author of the book Swiss Watching. "But it's the middle section of the population who best represent the country at large. They are generally tolerant, but there's an underlying apprehension that the country might be changing too quickly, and the general sense of 'not feeling Swiss anymore'."

Johan Djourou's family are from the Ivory Coast, while Eren Derdiyok's are Kurdish // EPA Images/Jean Christophe-Bott

There is a distinction to be made, Bewes says, between recent anti-immigrant rhetoric and the Swiss's more longstanding culture of insularity. "Not too many Swiss people are xenophobic – though that wing is especially vocal – but it is a distinctly Swiss trait to be wary of strangers, even if they're from the next village. The Swiss mindset is one of: 'you're not my friend until I know you.'"


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Significantly, given the uproar around the minaret ban, most of the above players, including Shaqiri, are Muslim. Many are what's known colloquially as secondos, or second-generation foreigners. That the other popular term for this group is papierli-Schweizer – or "Swiss on paper only" – is another indicator of the culture's inward-looking instincts.

Granit Xhaka could have opted to play international football for Albania // EPA Images/Jean-Christophe Bott

Arsenal new man Granit Xhaka, who was born in Basel to Kosovan parents, said last month: "I never used to be taken seriously as a Swiss person. I often heard people saying things like 'always these shit Albanians'. … People sometimes forget that there are good people from the Balkans as well. The biggest difference between someone like myself and an 'Urschweizer' [a person of Swiss heritage] is the name".

After all of this, the obvious move, as the European Championships approach, is to present the football team as a symbol of multicultural unity for a nation that is grappling with the notion. After all, what better response to ultraconservative intolerance than a country united in its support of a team that is so tangibly the product of open and eclectic immigration?

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All this in mind, there is an aptness to the identity of Switzerland's hosts this summer. France is a nation that's no stranger to with the issues presented by fast-moving racial integration and rightwing populism. It is also the clearest case of a country whose football team has been held up as a figurehead of racial harmony. Eighteen years ago, France's World Cup win – secured on home soil by an emphatically multiracial team led by Zinedine Zidane – was heralded as the symbolic start of a new era for a country that had been blighted for decades by racial tensions. The team quickly acquired two epithets, "the Rainbow Team" and the "black-blanc-beur" (beur being slag for Arab), both of which emphasised their status as an icon of assimilation and acceptance


Three years later, though, acceptance was an afterthought as Jean-Marie le Pen (to whom the team of '98 was "artificial") and his National Front party enjoyed unprecedented support, reaching the final stage of the presidential election despite having been declared defeated, alongside Brazil, by Zidane and co. More recently, the various scandals that have enveloped the football team – the players' revolt of 2010, the quotas episode of the following year, the Karim Benzema sex tape saga – have had the unfortunate common denominator of highlighting the nation's still simmering racial unease. As the sociologist Patrick Mignon said, seven years after the Rainbow Team's win: "This idea of integration by football was an illusion, seized on by people in power as a miracle solution."

France's World Cup '98 squad // PA Images

There's also the issue of the clunky correlation between symbolism and success. After all, the France team of 98 were only bestowed with the former because they achieved the latter. Switzerland, in all likelihood, will not be bringing any trophies home this summer. They may well fail miserably. But should that render the team culturally irrelevant?

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The obvious answer to that is no, though there remains a fine balance between appreciating what the team might stand for (racial integration) without projecting onto it sham ideals (the issue of racial integration, magically resolved). Swiss society, in other words, will have its problems at the end of the summer, however its footballers perform.

Granit Xhaka celebrates a goal with Xherdan Shaqiri and Gokhan Inler // EPA Images/Laurent Gillieron

"In some ways, the makeup of the national team does achieve an element of integration," says Bewes. "These are people from all over Europe, people with different names, who now see Switzerland as their home – you can see it as vindication of a multicultural society."

"But in terms of bare facts, what it essentially says is that there are a lot of immigrants living here. And regardless of what happens in the summer, the team's existence is likely to cover over a lot of the cracks of stuff people don't want to talk about."