Tag Archives: soccer

Xhaka vs. Xhaka: Swiss Debates about Immigration and National Identity

The world was watching today as Switzerland and Albania met in a qualifying-round soccer match at the European Championship in France. Switzerland won 1-0. The game got world-wide attention because two brothers were playing on opposite teams: Granit Xhaka for Switzerland and Taulant Xhaka for Albania.

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The Xhaka brothers Taulant (left) and Granit embracing before the game. (Screenshot Blick.com)

Whenever US national teams in any sport play in a big tournament, the expectation typically is that the US will win it all–soccer (known was football in the rest of the world) being an exception. Small countries rarely expect their sports teams to win a big tournament. Often, just qualifying for it suffices to get fans excited. When Switzerland beat Spain during the 2010 World Cup, fans were ecstatic. Spain went on to win the World Cup, Switzerland was eliminated because of a loss against Chile and a draw against Honduras, and everybody was happy. So symbolic victories matter and have an afterlife in the psyche of small countries with implications for national identity formation.

For Albania, the game was important because this is the first time ever that the Albanian national team qualified for a big tournament–World Cup or European Championship. To the Albanians, being there was more important than winning. This is why some streets of Zurich were dominated by Albanian immigrants who were in a celebratory mood in spite of the loss of their team. One Albanian fan told the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger that Albania was represented at the Euro with 38 players, more than any other country: “We feel like victors because the Swiss national team consists predominantly of Albanians.”

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Albanians celebrating: post-game parade in Zurich’s Langstrasse. Some Swiss showing colors as well. (Tages-Anzeiger)

And this is exactly the reason why some Swiss do not feel like celebrating. The Swiss national team over the past few years has become a focal point of the tempestuous debate about immigration, integration, naturalization and national identity which has been virulent in Switzerland since the early 1970s. When the Swiss Under-17 team unexpectedly won the World Cup in 2009, the Swiss public was surprised to learn that two-thirds of the players on that team had a migration background.  Many of these players have now moved up to the senior team.

Of the eleven players in the starting lineup of today’s game, only three do not have a migration background–interestingly the goal keeper and two defenders, while all mid-fielders and strikers do have a migration background. Five players have roots in Albania or in Kosovo (which is ethnically Albanian), and one additional player has roots in Bosnia. So the Albanian fans got it right: they do have reason to celebrate. At the same time, an informal survey of the Swiss tabloid Blick indicates that 58% of its readers do not identify with their national team.

The example of the Xhaka brothers illustrates what has become the norm in Swiss and indeed in European soccer. Both Xhaka brothers were born in Switzerland to Kosovo-Albanian parents who escaped collapsing Yugoslavia in 1989. Both grew up in Basel and learned to play soccer in local clubs. Both profited from the efforts of the Swiss Soccer Federation that since the early 1990s has made it their mission to help integrate the children of immigrants into Swiss society through soccer.

Taulant, born in 1991, still plays for the FC Basel and has collected four Swiss championship trophies with his club. Granit, born in 1992, transferred to Borussia Mönchengladbach, an elite German Bundesliga team, in 2012. Last month, it was announced that he will transfer to Arsenal next season. Both brothers played for Swiss national youth squads, but only Granit was invited to the senior team, while Taulant was invited to play in the Albanian national team in 2013. So Taulant plays for a Swiss club, but for the Albanian national team, while Granit chose a career in the Bundesliga and the Premier League but still plays for the Swiss national team.

Populists vilify both a nascent multicultural society in Switzerland in general and immigrants in particular because of their supposed lack in strength, character, conviction and commitment to their new country. Commentators from the populist right have denounced prominent Swiss players with a migration background because they allegedly lack loyalty towards their adoptive country as they play for a foreign national team, foreign club team, or both. While native Swiss players enjoy great support for seeking fame and fortune abroad, this is not the case for players with a migration background who play for a foreign club, like Granit, or worse, for a foreign national team, like Taulant. The Xhaka brothers very much represent the globalized cosmopolitan world of elite soccer in Europe where top teams buy top players regardless of nationality. But a more parochial Swiss public examines ‘their’ players with migration background for their ‘Swissness’ and finds them mostly wanting, as a desire to play abroad is seen as lacking ambition to integrate.

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Split loyalties: mother Xhaka wearing a t-shirt combining the flags of Albania and Switzerland. (Daily Mail Online)

At the 2014 World Cup, the Swiss team was the most cosmopolitan and was widely praised as a model for integration. But recently, questions of integration and identification with Switzerland have flared up within the national team as well. A frustrated Stephan Lichtsteiner, a star player at Juventus Turin and one of the few players without migration background, started the debate when two players with a long history with the national team were cut from the roster for the qualifier against Estonia in March 2015. He angrily told the rightist Basel daily Basler Zeitung: “To me it is not about the`true Swiss’ and the ‘other Swiss,’ rather it is about the question whether people still can identify with the the national team.”

Observers believe that this was a public acknowledgment that a powerful Albanian bloc has emerged in the Swiss national team and that the team is not nearly as integrated as perceived by the public. Lichtsteiner’s statement certainly did not not improve the public image of the Swiss national team at best and played into the populist rhetoric at worst. In that context, Albania was the worst-possible opponent for Switzerland. It is a good thing that the Albanian-Swiss managed to win over the Albanian team–otherwise the public backlash in Switzerland questioning the loyalty of their players would have been palpable. But then these players are professionals who want to play soccer, win games, and be successful in their careers–and who are annoyed about being drawn into integration and identification debates. So the true winners of today’s game: the Xhaka brothers.

FIFA Corruption and Small State Soft Power

Vladimir Putin made a good point in his condemnation of the indictment of 14 FIFA officials by the US Department of Justice this week: is this any of their business? Yes, FIFA is a corrupt organization. Yes, many members of FIFA’s all-powerful Executive Committee have been implicated in a number of corruption scandals. Yes, Putin has skin in the game because Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup as part of a rigged dual bidding process in 2010 that also gave Quatar its controversial 2022 World Cup–a process that allegedly took corruption to a much higher level and that now is under investigation. Furthermore, given his aggressive and deceptive policies against sovereign nations formerly in the Soviet orbit, Putin is not a likely candidate to occupy the moral high ground in issues other than riding topless through the Siberian tundra.

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FIFA President Sepp Blatter in 2010 disclosing Russia and Qatar as hosts of the 2018 and 2022 Word Cups (BBC News)

Yet, Putin makes a point worth exploring. Here is what Putin said about the arrested FIFA officials: “They are accused of corruption – who is? International officials. I suppose that someone broke some rules, I don’t know. But definitely, it’s got nothing to do with the USA. Those officials are not US citizens. If something happened it was not in the US and it’s nothing to do with them. It’s another clear attempt by the USA to spread its jurisdiction to other states. And I have no doubt – it’s a clear attempt not to allow Mr Blatter to be re-elected as president of Fifa, which is a great violation of the operating principles of international organisations.”

Let’s look at Putin’s argument in a reversed order. So how do international organizations work? They are incorporated in the country where they are based. FIFA is incorporated in Zurich, Switzerland, as a tax-exempt “Verein”–a club or association–with few financial reporting requirements. Except that there balance sheet has a few more digits than that of the local stamp collector club. De facto, FIFA operates like a large global, post-national corporation even though its members are continental and national federations. It has become a money-making machine even though on paper it is just a non-profit club. So the legal structure within which FIFA operates is woefully inadequate for the kind of business it does.

The next question is: if FIFA really is so corrupt, and not even Putin denies this, why would the host country, Switzerland, not investigate FIFA and bring charges?  For starters, corruption per se is not a crime under Swiss law. If corruption leads to unfair competitive practices, this can be prosecuted under the Unfair Competition Act. (Ironically, the Swiss parliament currently is considering the implementation of an anti-corruption statute which actually may make a difference in the future.) This is one reason why over two dozen major international sports organizations, including the International Olympic Committee, are based in Switzerland. (Other reasons are reliable and secretive financial services, an excellent transportation infrastructure, a pleasant environment, and good shopping for their wives.) They have created a culture of collusion with Swiss authorities who are going easy on these organizations in return for them doing business in Switzerland. Switzerland sees the presence of these organizations as a source of soft power–a small state specialty the Swiss are proud of. There are cases of Swiss authorities backing off when the organization under scrutiny threatened to leave the country. In short, the Swiss authorities never would have investigated FIFA on their own, particularly as the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, is a Swiss national.

There is a striking over-representation of small states in the Executive Committee, FIFA’s governing body. This is part of the FIFA system. The Cayman Islands, for instance, did nothing to investigate Jeffrey Webb, one of the vice presidents who now is suspended. It is not in the interest of small states to investigate its citizens who sit on important international boards and thus give their countries outsized influence. Of the seven FIFA officials arrested in Zurich this week, six represent small states. And then there is Teflon Sepp, the FIFA president, who so far miraculously has escaped prosecution. It is instructive, in this context, that the US has taken Chuck Blazer, its own corrupt FIFA official, out of circulation. He now is an informant for the US government.

This brings us back to the original question: what business of the U.S. is it? The indictments were brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO) of 1970. This implies that FIFA is treated as a Mafia-like criminal organization. As long as just one aspect of the crime, like wire fraud, originates in the U.S., the entire web of crimes can be prosecuted under U.S. law. This hook allows U.S. authorities to go after crimes that were largely committed abroad. The hook here is the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), a regional FIFA suborganization, that is based in Miami. Not surprisingly, most of those indicted are indeed associated with CONCACAF.

This type of aggressive extraterritorial jurisdiction is mostly seen with great suspicion and contempt in other countries as it tends to show U.S. authorities as overzealous, overbearing and overreaching–even though soccer fans would be glad to make an exception here. Over the years, such extraterritorial prosecutions often are directed against small states and its citizens. A good example is the U.S. pursuit of Nazi Gold in Switzerland in the 1990s–at a time when Swiss neutrality no longer was of use to the U.S. So the question remains if the U.S. prosecution really will be able to uproot FIFA corruption. The fact that Blatter himself was not indicted makes me think that it won’t. And the other question is how long it will take for small countries to feel trampled by this very assertive U.S. prosecution. So far, authorities in Switzerland have cooperated–hence the Zurich arrests. But it is unclear how long they will. Ironically, then, the solution may have to come from within FIFA, as Blatter himself demanded today. What Blatter can’t see is that this only has a chance of working without him as president.