It was ages ago. Yet it could have been yesterday. In 2008, to prepare for the Euro football championships that Switzerland would co-host, the national football team trained in Lugano. Just like they did eight years later.
Their final friendly match in 2008 was against Slovakia. I happened to be in Ticino at the time and, on a whim, popped along. A decision I would regret, not because of the so-so football – that was to be expected – but because of the behaviour of the Swiss fans surrounding me.
A certain Valon Behrami was running around in midfield for Switzerland. Behrami had fled the former Yugoslavia as a kid with his family and had grown up in Ticino. But back then he cut a sad figure, stringing together poor pass after poor pass. This was too much for the Swiss crowd, who began shouting “bloody Yugo” – a bloody Yugo, what’s more, who shouldn’t even be in the team…
Until the 56th minute of the game. That was when Switzerland took the lead. And the goal scorer? You guessed it: Valon Behrami. The shouts echoing round the stadium were suddenly “Come on Switzerland”! Never had anyone gone from being a bloody Yugo to a good upstanding Swiss in a shorter period of time.
And eight years later? Well, the Swiss squad has changed – and so have its fans. Today, players from the former Yugoslavia make up the national side’s indispensable backbone. A team without Behrami, Granit Xhaka, Admir Mehmedi, Blerim Dzemaili and – if he ever has another good day – Xherdan Shaqiri would be simply unthinkable. Even the manager, Vladimir Petkovic, was born in Bosnia.
But it seems to me that the relationship between players and fans has also changed. It’s become more distant. Not that the country is dismissive of the team – simply less emotional. Even after the recent win against Albania and a respectable performance against Romania, the atmosphere in Switzerland is hardly euphoric. The team’s performances are analysed soberly rather than celebrated exuberantly.
Politically, the Swiss national football team no longer corresponds to the image of Switzerland of those on the right, and the narrative of the football team as a model of successful integration, so popular on the left, hasn’t been so convincing since talk of a supposed “Balkan divide” within the team – talk started by a player, no less.
Over the past eight years the national team’s spell has been broken. It is no longer idealised. It now offers limited potential for identification for the broad public. Nowadays, when Switzerland take on Albania, depending on your perspective it’s Swiss versus Swiss, Albanian versus Albanian or even brother versus brother (Granit Xhaka played for Switzerland and his brother for Albania).
Unlike eight years ago, the national team is increasingly seen for what it is: a collection of stinking rich egos who want to boost their value even more.
What do you think of the Swiss national football team? Let us know!