Switzerland’s prospects of advancing to the knockout stage of the soccer World Cup rests on an issue that has split the country: immigration.
Fifteen members of the 23-player squad, which faces Honduras today in Switzerland’s final group game, have parents or grandparents who weren’t born in the country, according to data compiled by James Offer of Codehesive Production, an independent visual designer. That’s more than any of the other 31 nations competing in Brazil -- ahead of the U.S., which has 14 players born abroad or with a foreign parent or grandparent.
The Swiss national squad’s reliance on immigrants comes as the country is introducing quotas for foreigners after voters in February passed a measure to “stop mass immigration” by a majority of less than 20,000 ballots. Even so, Swiss soccer fans are supporting their team, lovingly called the Nati.
“Without our migrants we would have problems qualifying for a World Cup,” national coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, himself a German citizen, told reporters on June 19. “Switzerland is delighted with these migrants who are well-integrated. This is great for the whole of Switzerland.”
After qualifying for the World Cup undefeated and at the top of its group, Switzerland, ranked sixth by FIFA, will be counting on immigrants when it faces Honduras in Manaus. Without them, the starting lineups in its first two games would have been reduced to three players against Ecuador and two against France. All four of its goals in the matches so far have been scored by players whose parents were immigrants.
Four years to the day after its failure to beat Honduras knocked Switzerland out of the South Africa World Cup, the country needs a good result to advance to the next round. After beating Ecuador 2-1 in its opening game, it was thrashed 5-2 by France on June 20, leaving it in third place behind France and Ecuador in Group E on goal difference.
Switzerland is favored to win against Honduras, according to U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc. It has odds of 4-9, meaning a successful $100 dollar bet would have returned $44 plus the original stake.
Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, who has Italian grandparents, will try to keep a clean sheet this time helped by Ivory Coast-born defender Johan Djourou, Philippe Senderos, whose parents are from Spain and Serbia, and Ricardo Rodriguez, who has Chilean parents.
In the midfield, Valon Behrami and Xherdan Shaqiri -- both born in Kosovo -- captain Goekhan Inler, who has Turkish parents, Macedonia-born Admir Mehmedi and Granit Xhaka, whose parents are from Albania, will lead the way. Haris Seferovic or Josip Drmic, whose parents are from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia respectively, might lead upfront.
Should Switzerland advance to the round of 16, each player is set to get a 75,000 francs ($84,000) bonus from the Swiss Football Federation, according to a June 2 report in Blick newspaper. That’s in addition to base payment of 10,000 francs. If they become world champions, each player will receive 500,000 francs, Blick said. Still, that compares with 2.5 million euros ($3.4 million) Shaqiri makes annually at Bayern Munich, according to Sportbild.
A fifth of Switzerland’s 8 million inhabitants aren’t citizens. While critics have blamed everything from high rents to low wages on foreigners, skilled immigrants have played a prominent role in Swiss business for hundreds of years.
Geneva’s tradition of watchmaking traces its origins to the arrival of Huguenots in the 16th century, while in 1839 two Polish immigrants joined forces to form the company known today as Patek Philippe. Similarly, German immigrant Heinrich Nestle founded Nestle SA, the world’s biggest food company, and Beirut-born Nicholas Hayek was the force behind Swatch Group AG.
While Swiss authorities made Drmic apply for citizenship three times before granting him a passport, the national team’s success could help avoid situations like those in future.
The high number of immigrant soccer players in the Swiss team -- especially from countries like Kosovo, which has a bad reputation in Switzerland -- is boosting public opinion of foreigners, said Rafaele Poli, the head of the CIES Football Observatory in Neuchatel. Still, he warned of a potential backlash should Switzerland fail to reach the round of 16.
“A win against Honduras could make this dream possible,” he said in an interview. “People don’t expect Switzerland to go any further than the last 16. If the squad reaches this goal everyone will be thrilled.”