Switzerland's unlikely World Cup heroes

By Imogen Foulkes, BBC News, Berne

The name of Switzerland's most famous historical hero is, of course, William Tell. More recently, a man called Roger Federer has joined the hall of fame.

Few, though, would have predicted that the latest hero to make Swiss hearts swell with pride would be called Xherdan Shaqiri - not to mention his team-mates, Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka, Haris Seferovic, or Admir Mehmedi.

They are all members of Switzerland's national football team, currently ranked sixth in the world, and set to take on Argentina in the last 16 of the World Cup in Brazil.

They are all Muslims, in a country which very recently voted to ban minarets.

And they are all immigrants or the children of immigrants to Switzerland, where voters in February backed strict new quotas on immigration.

Just 20 years ago, when Switzerland played in the World Cup in the United States, its team members sounded rather different: Marc Hottinger, Alain Sutter, Stephane Chapuisat, Jurg Studer. So why have things changed so much?

In the 1970s and 80s, Switzerland actively recruited workers from what was then Yugoslavia. The idea of course was that just the men would come, and, once their work was finished, they would go home.

Gokhan Inler (Bottom L), whose parents are Turkish, captains the team- BBC NEWS
Granit Xhaka (L) and his team-mate Shaqiri both tweet in Albanian- BBC News
Gokhan Inler (Bottom L), whose parents are Turkish, captains the team- BBC NEWS
Granit Xhaka (L) and his team-mate Shaqiri both tweet in Albanian- BBC News

But the best laid plans of Swiss industry did not foresee the implosion of Yugoslavia, the civil war in Bosnia, where Haris Seferovic was born, or the crisis in Kosovo, originally home to Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, and Valon Behrami.

Many of those temporary workers became permanent; some were granted refugee status, their families joined them.

Today, there are almost half a million people of Balkan origin in Switzerland. And among the country's total population of eight million, almost two million are not Swiss.

Perhaps it should not be a surprise, then, to see how many nations are represented in the Swiss team.

Goalkeeper Diego Benaglio's roots lie in Italy, Ricardo Rodriguez has a Spanish father and a Chilean mother, while captain Gokhan Inler's parents are Turkish.

Prejudice and discrimination

But many Swiss have been slow to come to terms with such a demographic change. Life has not always been easy for young people uprooted from their homes by war, making their way in a new country which has been, at times, unwelcoming.

When Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami were growing up in Switzerland, a poster from the right-wing Swiss People's Party appeared. It read simply "Kosovo-Albaner Nein", or "Kosovar Albanians No".

It was a campaign against public funding for integration centres for immigrants from Kosovo, and it cannot have made comfortable reading for Switzerland's future football stars.

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