Soccer-Swiss pride in multi-ethnic team will not alter immigration debate

ZURICH, July 3 Thu Jul 3, 2014 12:18pm EDT

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ZURICH, July 3 (Reuters) - Swiss soccer fans talked of pride in defeat as they welcomed home their national team from the World Cup on Thursday, but cautioned the passions stirred by the multi-ethnic side would not impact the country's immigration debate.

Switzerland was glued to the TV on Tuesday as their side, led by a captain whose parents are Turkish and whose talisman was born in Kosovo, was knocked out of the tournament by a late goal against Argentina.

Hundreds of fans turned out in Zurich to give the Nati, as the national team is referred to in Switzerland, a hero's welcome after the heartbreaking defeat.

This was just five months after the country narrowly voted in favour of introducing tighter immigration controls, leading some to point to the high proportion of Swiss athletes who are first or second generation Swiss citizens.

A photo circulating on Twitter following the vote imagined the national soccer team without immigrants. All but three players were whited out of the picture.

The surprise victory of a Russian-born snowboarder nicknamed "I-Pod" at the Olympic Games in Sochi just days after the immigration vote also led to an ironic outpouring of national pride.

Fans who turned out to welcome the Nati home expressed their pride at the players' performance and said the team was a good example of cultural integration, but few thought this would spill over into politics.

"I think that politics and sport shouldn't be mixed with one another," said Dani Seiler, a 32-year old office clerk, on the sidelines of event for the Swiss team in Zurich.

Housewife Beatrice Scheurer, 57, echoed this sentiment: "I know what sport is and I know what politics is."

In a country where foreigners account for nearly a quarter of the country's 8 million strong population, there are fears that the Swiss way of life is under threat.

Credit Suisse, Switzerland's second-largest bank, and drug giant Novartis are run by Americans.

This was seized on by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which campaigned for the tighter immigration controls in February's referendum.

The Nati though represents a melting pot for players of different backgrounds to come together. This is embodied by the team's star player Xherdan Shaqiri.

Shaqiri, 22, plays for German champions Bayern Munich and scored three goals for Switzerland at the World Cup. Born in Kovoso and raised in a small town outside Basel, Shaqiri drew the biggest applause from fans as he was presented on stage with the other players.

The player is aware of his multicultural background, wearing boots stitched with the Swiss, Albanian and Kosovan national flags. He often tweets in German and Albanian, adding hashtags such as #suisse, #kosovo, #albania and #love.

"I feel emotionally attached to Switzerland as well as Kosovo, my parents' homeland," Shaqiri wrote on his Facebook page before the Argentina game. "I love both countries more than anything."

Alongside Shaqiri in the squad are players such as Josip Drmic, Philippe Senderos and captain Gokhan Inler, who all have foreign parents.

Midfielder Valon Behrami, 29, who arrived in Switzerland aged five with his family as refugees from Kosovo, was almost deported twice, but saved in large part thanks to efforts by a local politician, according to Swiss daily newspaper Blick.

Switzerland's coach at the World Cup, German Ottmar Hitzfeld, who ushered in this new wave of players, has talked of its importance to Swiss soccer.

"Switzerland has lots of immigrants, around 20 percent of the population, and in the team, over half the team are immigrants," Hitzfeld said in pre-match news conference at the World Cup. "Without immigrants we would not have a team."

SVP lawmakers Natalie Rickli and Hans Fehr, who have been very prominent in their support of immigration controls, stressed the impact of Switzerland's soccer success after the team qualified for the round of 16 and a match against Argentina.

"These moments unite city and country, old and young, but also the Swiss and second generation citizens," Rickli is quoted as saying by Swiss newspaper 20 Minuten.

Dany El-Idrissi, 38, a former Swiss athlete whose father is from Morocco, told Reuters the example set by this Swiss side could result in change off the pitch as well as on it.

"Sport can change politics," he said. "That's the reality." (Additional reporting by Alice Baghdjian and Katharina Bart in Zurich, Brian Homewood in Brasilia, Editing by Nigel Hunt)

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