Switzerland’s success at the Under-17 World Cup was a victory for a team drawn from many different backgrounds
Around 20 per cent of Switzerland’s 7.3 million inhabitants are foreign, yet the country’s record on race relations is not one of which it can always be proud. Even today there are occasional cases of non-white foreign tourists being refused service in hotels and restaurants, while the country also tolerates the sort of right-wing propaganda which would be banned in most European nations.
In 2007 the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) produced posters featuring a black sheep kicking a white sheep off a Swiss flag, and it also instigated the referendum on whether the country’s mosques should be allowed to build minarets – only a handful of Swiss mosques currently have them.
The SVP favoured a ban and, to make its point, stuck up posters featuring a burka-clad woman against a backdrop of minarets, which had been drawn to look like missiles, all standing on a Swiss flag. To the surprise of many within Switzerland, the referendum banning the building of minarets was passed.
It was against this background that a multicultural Switzerland team won the Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria – and with perfect timing as their astonishing triumph came just two weeks before the referendum on minarets was due to be held.
More than half the players come from immigrant backgrounds, including asylum seekers. They emerged victorious from the tournament after beating Brazil, Germany, Italy and, in the Final, hosts Nigeria. It was the first time Switzerland had won a world championship at any age level.
“This is unbelievable!” exclaimed tabloid newspaper Blick. “Our multicultural team’s performances on the AstroTurf must even fill the most conservative of Swiss People’s Party voters with pride.”
It was difficult to tell whether Blick was right as the SVP – possibly remembering the trouble that Jean-Marie Le Pen got into with his comments about the France side having too many coloured players – decided to stay quiet on the subject.
Every member of the squad was born and educated in Switzerland, but 12 of them also hold dual nationality and are still entitled to play for the countries of their parents’ birth.
These include playmaker Nassim Ben Khalifa, whose parents come from Tunisa, and the team’s leading scorer Haris Seferovic, who grabbed the only goal in the Final and is also eligible to play for Bosnia. The other players with immigrant backgrounds are Pajtim Kasami (Macedonia), Granit Xhaka (Albania), Kofi Nimeley (Ghana), Joel Kiassumbua (Congo), Andre Goncalves (Portugal), Ricardo Rodriguez (Chile), Igor Mijatovic (Serbia), Frederic Veseli (Kosovo), Maik Nakic (Croatia) and Sead Hajrovic (Bosnia).
Despite Switzerland having only 200,000 registered players – and the fact that football has to vie with ice hockey for popularity – their win in Nigeria was by no means an accident.
They won the European Championship at the same age level in 2002 with a squad that included Philippe Senderos and Tranquillo Barnetta, who both went on to become regular full internationals.
Since 1995 the country has run one of Europe’s most impressive youth development schemes under the leadership of Hansruedi Hasler, a former coach of Swiss lower league sides Grenchen and Biel-Bienne.
Hasler laid down the guidelines encouraging every professional club to employ a certain number of full-time youth coaches, with financial support from the Swiss Football Federation.
“The clubs really are the cornerstone,” says Hasler. “They have had to improve youth development in recent years. We spend £2.6million each year on this project.
“These are incredibly important factors, without which we would not be where we are today. When we started the scheme there were five or six professional coaches in youth football. Today there are 80.”
Fulham manager Roy Hodgson, who coached Switzerland at the 1994 World Cup, also played his part by demanding that all national youth sides adopt his 4-4-2 system, something which remains intact today.
Of course, winning an Under-17 championship does not guarantee success at senior international level. And there are two ways it can go wrong. One is that their players could get snapped up by big European clubs, where they will then struggle to get a game and find themselves loaned from club to club. Secondly, the players with dual nationality could be lured to play for the countries of their parents’ birth. FIFA rules allow them to switch allegiances until they have played a competitive senior international.
With this in mind, Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld would be advised to make his move quickly.