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In the 84th minute of a World Cup qualifying match between Switzerland and Albania in September 2012, the ball fell to Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka in the middle of the penalty area. With no defenders challenging him, Xhaka was seemingly certain to slot the ball in the net for an easy goal. Instead he struck the ball weakly and directly at the keeper. To some, it was simply a player making a bad play in front of an open goal, not a rarity in football. To others, including Swiss match commentator Sascha Ruefer, Xhaka had purposely flubbed the scoring chance because of his opponent. Ruefer was referring to the fact that Xhaka, like four of his fellow Swiss teammates, is of Albanian origin. Despite that missed chance, the Swiss won the game 2-0 and qualified for the World Cup with ease. However, the play was an especially heated moment in the discussion surrounding a distinctly multicultural national team representing a country grappling with its own issues of identity.
Europe at large continues to question its attitudes around national identity and freedom of movement. In last month’s European Union parliamentary elections, far-right and “Eurosceptic” political parties such as France’s Front National made sweeping gains. These parties prospered on the basis of campaigns involving staunch anti-immigration policy and often highly xenophobic world views.
Though not a member of the EU, Switzerland has recently been seen as a key testing ground and barometer for right-wing political gains, particularly in legislation aimed at Muslims and immigrants. Examples of this include the passage of laws banning minarets on mosques in 2009 and face veils in 2013. More recently, despite 1 in 4 citizens of Switzerland being from an immigrant background, a referendum passed in February demanding a quota for immigration be set, dramatically limiting the amount of new Swiss citizens. While there are far more important and serious consequences of this move (namely relations between the Swiss and the EU), it is the Swiss football team that provides one of the most tangible examples of the potential impact.
Immediately following the passage of the referendum, football pundits began to ruminate on the influence the new limit on immigration would have on the Swiss national team. Switzerland is going through a footballing renaissance. Though they possess a second-rate domestic league and have performed as a peripheral fixture at most international competitions, the Swiss are now blessed with a “Golden Generation” of talent. Without a player older than 30, they are one of the youngest squads at this year’s World Cup. As the tournament begins they will enter ranked by FIFA as the sixth best team in the world, ahead of traditional powers such as Italy, France, and The Netherlands. The team is deeply multicultural, with players of Macedonian, Bosnian Croat, Cape Verdean, and Ivorian roots, just to name a few.
The question of identity and allegiance weighs heavily on the five Swiss-Albanian players in particular: Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Blerim Džemaili, Valon Behrami, and Admir Mehmedi. Kosovo, where many of the Swiss-Albanian players trace their roots, is currently fighting for recognition from FIFA to field their own national team. Players such as Shaqiri, who wears a trio of flags from Switzerland, Albania, and Kosovo on his boots, is keenly sought after by the Kosovo Football Association for support in this endeavor. Swiss newspapers have reported on the potential catastrophic impact on their own national team should Swiss-Kosovar players join a future Kosovo national team in lieu of the Swiss. Statements from Granit Xhaka stating that he plans to play for Switzerland “for now” have done little to quell these fears, as FIFA allows players to make a one-time switch of national allegiance.
Switzerland is far from the only European squad to feature a multicultural line-up, and the issue of national identity as reflected in national teams goes back decades. In the 1966 World Cup, Eusébio, a striker from the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique, led Portugal to third place at the England-based tournament. The last World Cup saw the Ghanaian-German Boateng brothers competing head to head, representing Ghana and Germany respectively. Italy is anchored at forward by Mario Balotelli of Ghanaian roots, Belgium features rising English Premier League star Romelu Lukaku of Congolese heritage, and the French squad relies heavily on their players of West African and Arab backgrounds.
As EU and Swiss political leanings of late would indicate, not all fans and administrators are happy with the cosmopolitan melting pot that these squads have become. Italy’s Balotelli has faced a consistent barrage of racist chants throughout his career, at times from his team’s own supporters. France’s football administrators have proposed limiting participation by players of Arab and African heritage in the nationally run football academies to 30%.
In a globalized world it is increasingly hard to view ethnicity and national identity in binaries. The Swiss squad serves as a mirror for Switzerland itself, a reality check that showcases the diverse demographic makeup of the nation versus groups such as the Swiss People’s Party’s more homogeneous ideal. The team brings up important questions of what nationalism means in the modern sense. Is it possible for a player to represent one nation while simultaneously “feeling” attachment to another? Can a player display patriotism for two different countries at once?
History says that even success by a country at a World Cup does not necessarily translate into social change. France’s multi-ethnic World Cup winning squad of 1998, captained by Zinedine Zidane (of Algerian heritage), did not exactly stamp out xenophobia in that country, as the recent EU elections in France would confirm. However, Switzerland is a country that is inherently multicultural, with four national languages and influence from their close neighbors permeating. Given that the referendum on immigration quotas passed by only 0.6 percent, it would not be unthinkable that a deep run by this diverse Swiss team could sway public opinion. Europe may be experiencing a swing to the right, but football has, and will continue to be, a bastion of multicultural nationalism on the global stage.