20 November 2009 ~ "Unreal and absurd" was how the football correspondent of the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger described the first ever opportunity to write the headline Switzerland: World Champions, following the Under-17s World Cup triumph. Irresistible too, as newspapers across the land almost uniformly led their front pages with that stunning phrase. The tone of the coverage accurately captured the widespread public delight and disbelief at the team's success. But perhaps the surprise should not have been so great. Swiss football has produced a sustained improvement at international level over the last decade.
The full national team has eclipsed a history largely spent deep among the also-rans by featuring in the last four major international tournaments (albeit once as underperforming hosts of Euro 2008). At age group levels things are even healthier, with the Under-17s winning the 2002 European Championship and the current crop being unlucky to lose in the semi-finals of this year's Euros.
So how has a small nation with a total population only slightly larger than the number of registered footballers in neighbouring Germany done it? The Swiss archetypes of wealth and organisation provide one explanation. The abundant sports facilities in Swiss cities, towns and villages are generally of a strikingly high standard, with community football clubs being well-funded by a mix of local government, business sponsors, the Swiss FA (SFA) and members' fundraising. This is matched by the quality of coaching given to children of all ages in conformity with the SFA's carefully developed national plan. At national team level, continuity is also valued. Winning coach Dany Ryser has been with the current Under-17s squad for three years and is now due to revert back to guiding the next group of Under-15s through to the older level.
The second explanation for this improvement is immigration. The "blanc, black, Balkan" mix of the victorious Under-17s has been much commented on in Switzerland, a society still struggling to reconcile its isolationist past and modern multicultural reality. Thirteen members of the squad have alternative citizenship options and their victory has come at a time when much of the country is plastered with offensive billboards demanding a ban on minaret construction; the far right's latest ruse to stigmatise Swiss Muslims and residents of foreign origin generally.
There have been several recent cases of promising young Swiss players taking the hint and switching their allegiance. Despite this, the thirteen made a pre-tournament "Abuja Declaration" pledging their future representative loyalty to Switzerland. Although it would be no great surprise if some were tempted to change their minds over the coming years, perhaps the squad's achievement will make a small contribution towards nudging Swiss society in a more inclusive direction. If nothing else, they performed the remarkable feat of prompting tawdry rightwing tabloid Blick to take a day off from burkha bashing in order to trumpet star striker Haris Seferovic's faith in Allah as a pillar of his success. Paul Knott