This Swiss Team Is Anything but Boring and Neutral

With immigrant stars, Die Nati has come to symbolize a new Switzerland

The Swiss are thought of in stereotypes: punctual, organized, transactional, “Swedish” (there’s always confusion), and, especially, neutral. Recall the Orson Welles line from The Third Man: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed—they produced Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”

It’s equal parts truth and myth. In Zurich, for instance, I once saw a transgender prostitute snort a line of cocaine on the seat of the No. 32 bus along Langstrasse, the city’s thriving red light district, something I never saw growing up in the Bronx in the 1980s.

At least the Swiss, as a people, have some kind of identity in the popular imagination, even if it’s a cliché. Their soccer, on the other hand, is rarely if ever given consideration at all, at least not in this country, even among the “Euro snob” subculture of American soccer fandom.

This is odd because immigration—especially by asylum seekers fleeing the breakup of Yugoslavia—has given Swiss Super League clubs and the national team (“Die Nati”) a multinational inflection, something the Confoederatio Helvetica, a democracy since 1291, was already well-equipped for. Even the logo of Swiss International Air Lines—designed by Tyler Brule—is written in its four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh.

Despite the efforts of conservative politician Christoph Blocher, who has led a backlash against immigration—a delicate issue throughout Europe—the Swiss have done better than most in welcoming foreigners. Newcomers and their children are known as “secondos.” It means second generation, but is used for those who were born abroad and even third-generation Swiss. It may sound like a pejorative to sensitive ears, but isn’t considered one there.

Looking at the Swiss line-up without immigrants is startling, as this widely-circulated image after a controversial referendum from earlier this year illustrated. All four strikers (or “Stürmer” in German, those within the storm) on the World Cup squad have roots in the former Yugoslavia, as do four of the eight midfielders, including Xherdan Shaqiri, whose hat trick against Honduras helped the team reach the second round, where it will face Argentina. (Most of the goalkeepers and defenders, including Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus, are, for lack of a better term, “Swiss Swiss.”) Most of the team plays on midlevel clubs in the Bundesliga and Serie A, much better clubs than, say, most of the Americans play for.

The exception, the star, is Shaqiri. He was born in Kosovo, made his name at FC Basel, the country’s wealthiest and most successful club over the last decade, and now plays for Bayern Munich. He’s a good player, often a very good player, who has been called “the Swiss Messi.” He is not, however, comparable to the Argentine, despite his emphatic performance the other day. For one, he’s built more like Maradona (though he’s not Maradona, either): short, thick, a barreling medicine ball of rage.If Messi is The Little Prince, on a planet of his own, Shaqiri is a yet-to-be-written character in a Dubravka Ugresic novel.

Though he was brought to Switzerland as a baby and speaks Swiss-German, there’s nothing particularly Swiss about him, in stance or gesture. He swaggers in a country of office workers who settle in at their desks before sunrise. (Perhaps that’s why he remains fairly popular there.)

This is not to argue that immigrants, or children of immigrants, can’t assimilate. The Swiss captain, Gökhan Inler, a brainy holding midfielder, was born in Switzerland to Turkish parents and seems the epitome of what’s good about the Swiss and humankind in general: steady, reliable, calm, well-mannered, serious.

Inler had a couple of terrific seasons at FC Zurich under coach Lucien Favre, now with Borussia Mönchengladbach. I once met a team official who told me, off the record, that another young star on the club, Blerim Dzemaili, who was born in Macedonia but raised in Zurich, was the party boy while Inler was home every night, asleep, and up early for training.That’s why it came as such a surprise when Inler appeared at his first press conference for new club Napoli in 2011—after four great seasons with Udinese—in a massive lion’s mask, no doubt the idea of theatrical team president and film producer Aurelio de Laurentiis, who once called Messi “a cretin” and threatened to chop the “balls off” Eziquiel Lavezzi’s agent if the player left the club. (Lavezzi eventually left; I’m afraid to ask.)

Dzemaili re-joined his old FCZ teammate at Napoli. Shaqiri chose Munich, though if ever there was a club and a place for him, it would be Naples, that volcanic city of song and sin.

So with this influx of players whose families arrived from the former Yugoslavia (where the national team was once known as the “Brazil of Europe”), the question is this: why haven’t the Swiss been better? Sure, they’re sixth in the world according to FIFA, but those rankings are specious. They didn’t qualify for the last European Championship. In 2010, they shocked Spain 1–0 in their opening match, but still didn’t get out of the group, nor did they advance in Euro 2008, when they were co-hosts.

In fact, this tournament is as far as they’ve been since the World Cup in 2006, when they crashed out in penalties to Ukraine in one of the most tedious matches in recent memory. Back then they were coached by the sweet, avuncular Kobi Kuhn, a local hero for FC Zurich—so local he still lived in Kreis 3, the working class district of FCZ’s stadium, Letzigrund.

Since 2008, they’ve been led by Ottmar Hitzfeld, who has a fondness for creepy trench coats and is the rare German who actually speaks Swiss-German. He’s also won the Champions League with two different clubs, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund.Late in Switzerland’s first match against Ecuador, he put in Haris Seferovic, who eventually scored the winner deep into stoppage time.Then came the potentially ruinous 5–2 loss to France, but in the dreaded Manaus, Hitzfeld got his team mentally ready for the bell against Honduras. Shaqiri, with help from Josip Drmic, finally lived up to the hype.

Argentina (and The Little Prince) will be another story, one that probably won’t have as happy an ending for the Swiss. But if there’s at least a soupçon of truth in stereotype—and there is—Switzerland will make an impact on a vast stage with its new diverse protagonists. Soon. Qualifying for Euro 2016 begins in 10 weeks.