Where Eagles Dare, Switzerland’s Immigrant Story

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Irish teams of the past have relied on the sons of emigrants. As Ireland get set to face Switzerland in a crucial Euro 2020 qualifier, the visitors will boast a side with players whose families fled war and poverty to settle in the Alpine nation, and their football team is reaping the rewards, as Jamie Whelan explores.

Ireland’s reliance on ‘granny rule’ imports became infamous during the Jack Charlton era with the ex-Yorkshire miner tracing and sometimes happening upon the bloodlines of talented young British-born players eager to wear the green over the white. It was a tactic that saw O’Connell Street regularly turn into a sea of emerald-clad humanity throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s. The returning heroes of the Diaspora and a sprinkling of home-grown talent propelled Irish football to heights once thought beyond us. 

Ray Houghton, Kevin Kilbane, John Aldridge and f*ck it, even Mark Lawrenson are all names now synonymous with Irish football’s glory days. We tapped into the knock-on effects brought about by our history of colonialism and reaped the rewards. And why wouldn’t we?

Now with a Euro 2020 qualifier on the horizon, our challengers have a team of stars not from their neighbouring borders – but from the war-torn Balkans. 

As the Socialist state of Yugoslavia collapsed throughout the 1990’s into the countries known today as Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo, chaos raged as a tug of war of lands and status ripped the region apart. 

For a decade, genocide, sadistic Generals and NATO bombings helped displace countless numbers of people.

Many of these fled to Switzerland, the often secretive Alpine nation – by 2009 Balkan refugees accounted for 6.5% of the population, and with the Yugoslavs reputation as the “Brazilians of Europe” when it came to football, there was certainly more to the region than Zvonimir Boban booting a police officer in the chest and Red Star winning the European Cup.

The Balkans refugees weren’t the first to arrive in Switzerland, however, and like neighbouring countries Germany and Austria, the Swiss were also proud hosts to large Turkish, Kurd and African migrant communities. 

The Swiss national side had failed to qualify for the European Championships up until 1996, but having hosted it in 2008 with Austria they have only failed twice since to compete.

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Other than 1998 and 2002 they have appeared at five World Cups since USA ‘94. From 2002, the Swiss team seemed to take on a new outlook with players of Turkish roots like Gohkan Inler, Erin Derdiyok, while Hakan Yakan and his brother Murat were part of galvanized Swiss sides in the last decade. 

Fast forward a few years and the children of the Balkan wars who were raised or born in Switzerland having fled their homeland have propelled themselves to the national side. Valon Berhami the Kosovo-born talisman who played at four World Cups set the scene for a future generation of Balkan stars to follow.  

Granit Xhaka, Roman Burki, Admir Mehmedi and Albian Ajeti are current players of Albanian/Kosovan descent with this week’s no-show, Xherdan Shaqiri being the star player to come from Albanian heritage. Haris Sefrovic (Bosnia), Josip Drmic (Croatia) and Blerim Dzeamli (Macedonia) have also featured in previous squads. 

The African influence is also now flourishing in the Swiss side, Breel Embolo, Kevin Mbabu, Francois Moubandje and Manuel Akanji have parents of Nigerian, Cameroonian and Congolese backgrounds. We can only hope players like Jonathan Afolabi and Michael Obafemi and more reach these heights and benefit the Irish camp. 

During the last World Cup as Switzerland took on Serbia, the atmosphere inside the ground spilled over into a repeat of the sectarianism that fuelled the darkness of the 1990’s. Serbians & Albanians have not forgotten the past, and in Russia it was also played out on the pitch. 

Shaqiri got the winner to sink the Serbs, and his response to the hardcore fans was to mimic the Albanian eagle with his hands, a symbol of his homeland and flag – a proud moment for Shaqiri no doubt, although critics responded with arguments such as:  “If you love Albania so much – why don’t you play for them?” They questioned his loyalties and that of many Albanian-born stars.  The world football governing body FIFA fined the Swiss FA, Serbia exited the World Cup and Switzerland made the second round.

When Ireland face Switzerland at Lansdowne Road this week, many will overlook that they are a team of war-torn youths and migrants who are immensely proud to don the Swiss shirt ahead of their birth nations. 

Many of our own favourite football stars didn’t grow up kicking ball around Sheriff Street or Dorset Street flats; they were made in British football clubs and towns. 

The Swiss represent more than just the white cross and St Bernard’s carrying schnapps. It’s a football project that embraced its population – and earned its reputation. With the wave of immigrants who settled in Ireland during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ now having pushed onto the first generation, it’s a project we should learn from.

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