It’s not just football for the Swiss – citizenship, belonging and penalty shoot-outs

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In summer 2021, the European championship finals meant that football was on many peoples’ minds. A big surprise was the Swiss team knocking out world champions France after a nerve wracking penalty shoot-out. In Switzerland, European and world championships also serve as a recurring backdrop for the continuous debate about the ‘Swissness’ of migrants and their descendants – the so-called second generation, also known as ‘persons with a migration background’. Of the 26-man Swiss squad, 16 players had a ‘migrant background’. How football players behave on-as-well-as-off the pitch is closely scrutinized and intensely debated. Reports of star players Granit Xhaka and Manuel Akanji flying in a hairdresser to bleach their hair, the cars the players drive or who sings the national anthem can seem to fill more pages in the newspapers than the actual games. The latent undertone in media coverage is that flouting wealth is not a Swiss quality and testifies to a lack of integration among players with a migration background.

The Federal Bureau of Statistics labels all foreign nationals as well as naturalized individuals of the first- and second-generation (including third-generation foreigners) born to at least one foreign- and one Swiss born national, and naturalized Swiss citizens whose parents were born abroad as ‘persons with a migration background’. By doing so, Switzerland follows United Nations guidelines regarding the legal categorization of people by migration status. Ostensibly, following international guidelines, could mean that these labelling practices are uncontroversial. And yet, 37.5% of the Swiss population belongs to the category of ‘persons with a migration background’, which raises the question of whether the problem is ‘a home-made statistical one’, to frame it in Klaus Bade’s words. Many individuals behind these statistics are not, in other words, foreigners at all. Midfielder Granit Xhaka serves as a good example: although his family is of Kosovo-Albanian origin, he was born in Basel, a canton in the North-West of Switzerland. Like many other individuals with a ‘migration background’, Xhaka was obliged to prove that he had integrated properly before being able to apply for Swiss citizenship. And herein lies the problem regarding the exceptionally high immigration numbers when compared internationally: how can integration into a national community be ascertained for people born and raised in Switzerland?

While there is no universally agreed upon definition, integration might be defined along the lines of a total or substantial decrease of ethnic stratification, a gradual decline of immigrant status, and the immigrant status of second, third, etc. generation immigrants. In the Swiss context, ‘belonging’ legally entails that foreigners must substantiate their level of integration according to eleven overarching, and a total of sixty-eight sub criteria.

Since the adoption of the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration (AIG) in 2019, Swiss integration policy is based on a ‘support and demand’ principle. ‘Support’ that is offered includes language learning, and facilitated access into the labour market while there are financial incentives for employers that hire recognized refugees and temporarily admitted persons. ‘Demand’ refers to the migrants’ responsibility to respect the federal constitution, uphold public safety, receive an education, hold down a job, and have good knowledge of either the French, Italian or German language. The aim of these criteria is, according to Art. 4 of the AIG, to ensure a co-existence of the ‘resident Swiss and foreign population’. Demanding that one learn a language, work, and go to school, for instance, is unambiguous if not elementary. Yet, the wording of Article 4 is worth looking at more closely as it clearly delineates the ‘Swiss resident’ from the ‘foreign population’ and reveals much about the socio-political attitudes regarding migrants and their descendants. Individuals with a ‘migration background’ who were born in Switzerland, received their education in one of the 26 cantons, and speak one or more of the four national languages with fluency, for instance, are still labelled foreign in the absence of formal belonging by possession of the Swiss passport. This is astounding, seeing that – though labelled as foreign, many of these people have never lived anywhere else. Labelling individuals who were born and raised in Switzerland as foreign testifies to the deep-seated jus sanguinis understanding of citizenship and belonging, and suggests a second-class status and ‘undeservingness’, especially among racialized and/or ethnified migrants.

The national football team holds a mirror to Swiss society. Having to prove one’s level of integration does not necessarily end after receiving citizenship. Instead, people with a migration background holding a Swiss passport or not, seem in continuous need of having to demonstrate that they really deserve to belong. This is especially interesting regarding luxury-car ownership and public displays of wealth by players on the national team. Yet, contrary to popular assumption, the Swiss are not as frugal as the national myth could lead one to believe. Private household debt stands at a massive 223% compared to disposable income. Ironically, the purchase of cars is the most often cited reason for people getting into debt. That said, getting into debt can be far more precarious for individuals with a migration background since the AIG came into force in 2019. Art. 63 stipulates that individuals holding a permanent resident status can, in addition to violating public order, be downgraded on the basis of going into debt and/or receiving social welfare. At present, the controversial legal practice of Rückstufung (downgrading C- to B-visa) within the legal category of permanent residence affects more than 70,000 individuals, including people born in Switzerland.

Members of the Swiss national football team do not have to fear a potential Rückstufung given their citizenship status, though the discourse surrounding European championships and World cups lays bare the fraught relationship Switzerland has with migrants. While bureaucratic inscription practices are burgeoning, the power of belonging to Switzerland in terms of community ties ought not to be underestimated.


Sandra King-Savic is a Postdoctoral researcher and Executive Director at the Center for Governance and Culture in Europe at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. King-Savic’s research interests include the emic and legal perspectives of integration and belonging among migrants, diaspora relations, informal practices, and ethnography.


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