Switzerland to its Footballers: Thanks Very Much, Now Go Back to Where You Came From

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It’s common to celebrate the tapestry of nations coming together at World Cups. The globe unites under a shared passion, and, for one month every four years, it seems hundreds of millions of people assume new nationalities. What other event could transplant the bitter South American rivalry between Brazil and Argentina onto a slum in South Asia?

But while everyone seems to value the tournament’s global diversity, less is said about the growing diversity within the teams participating — indeed, in the recent past, the presence of naturalized Brazilians and Nigerians on the Tunisian and Polish teams led to howls of protest, as if some sort of pure distillation of national identity was being tainted. But consider the three players involved in Switzerland’s ugly, game-winning goal yesterday: Blaise Nkufo, born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, laid the ball off to Eren Derdiyok, born to Turkish parents, who bundled it through to Gelson Fernandes, born and raised in the islands of Cape Verde, to tap it in.

All three grew up as immigrants in Switzerland, a country whose politics in the past decade have edged toward the far-right. Fears over immigration and Islam have metastasized, leading to last year’s notorious referendum that banned the construction of minarets in this country of mountains and cowbells. The anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party have employed this controversial logo to lament the black sheep in their midst.

But Switzerland’s football team — much like France’s 1998 World Cup winning side — belies the country’s xenophobic political climate. For years, the Swiss side has been anchored by two brothers of Turkish descent, Hakan and Murat Yakin. Last year, Switzerland’s Under-17 side, which was almost half Muslim, defeated Nigeria in the finals of the Under-17 tournament — effectively the greatest moment in the history of Swiss football. Stars for the future include Nassim Ben Khalifa, of Tunisian descent, and Haris Seferovic, whose Bosnian Muslim family fled to Switzerland as refugees.

One would hope that the international success of such a multi-ethnic team could soften tensions at home, but rarely does unity on the pitch lead to better integration off it. Many Europeans see no problem with cheering on a particular dark-skinned player in their national shirt, while muttering darkly about their kind with friends. And perhaps the Swiss don’t need their football team as a kind of crutch for their identity as much as some other countries — at least, not as long as they have Roger Federer.