In Bundesliga, where Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer plies his trade for Borussia Mönchengladbach, he has a curious moniker. He is called ‘bonsai’ – not because he is short, he is six feet tall – but he was as not as tall as most of the custodians in the league. But on Monday night, Sommer stood tall, symbolically and literally, to claw away Kylian Mbappe’s strike in the penalty shootout to script the biggest upset in this edition of the Euros.
That moment encapsulates the heart-warming story of Switzerland’s upset in many ways — a non-celebrity footballer whose name is scarcely heard outside his own league, who is better known as a food blogger in his country, slaying the reputation of one of the most expensive and coveted young forwards around. Mbappe cost PSG 133 million dollars, his price has since shot to 200 million dollars. The whole of the Swiss squad combined would barely nudge 150 million dollars. A team ranked 13th in the FIFA table, with an unremarkable footballing history, knocking the world champions, an undisputed elite of the game, out of the tournament. It is the stuff fairy tales are made of.
There, certainly, was fortune winking at them. Kingsley Coman’s shot rebounded off the junction of the bar and post in the last minute of stoppage time. Before that, on numerous instances were the Swiss saved by a rushing body or a skidding boot, last-ditch interceptions and frantic tackling. They held on, dreaming, daring and defying.
Not just Sommer, most of the heroes of the night have unfamiliar names and faces. Mario Gavranovic, the man whose 90th-minute strike kept the Swiss in the game, spent most of his younger years hopping clubs in the bottom tiers of the Bundesliga before finally blossoming at Dinamo Zagreb last year.
A welcoming country
The 31-year-old symbolises the cultural diversity (and micro-diversity) of this Swiss side too. Gavranovic is a Bosnian Croat, brought up in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking province of Ticino. His strike partner Haris Seferovic too is from Bosnia, but a Muslim. His parents fled the violence in the Balkans at the end of the 1980s. Like Gavranonic, he could not find his feet at mainstream European clubs and finally settled down at Benfica in Portugal. But the opportunism and finesse he demonstrated in slotting Switzerland’s first two goals had the stamp of a top-class forward. The first, in the 15th minute, stunned France. The second, in the 81st, panicked them while infusing the Swiss with hope and belief.
The Swiss midfield, which out-muscled the French for a majority of the game, is equally inclusive. Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka are of Albanian and Kosovan heritage respectively; Breel Emboli is from Cameroon, Denis Zakaria’s father is Congolese and mother Sudanese. Ruben Vargas’s father came from the Dominican Republic; Edmilson Fernandes is from Cape Verde; Admir Mehmedi from North Macedonia. Djibril Sow is of Senegalese descent. But none of these differences mattered as they put in a supremely collective show of energy and intelligence. Eclipsing a midfield axis of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba is a difficult chore at the best of times.
Switzerland’s defensive bulwark Kevin Mbabu, who missed the game through suspension, has a Congolese mother and French father, but was brought up by an Austrian stepfather. He has allies of Spanish (Loris Benito), Chilean (Ricardo Rodríguez) Nigerian (Manuel Akunji) and Turkish (Eray Cömert) ancestry, who produced one improbable block after the other. That makes 16 of the 26 players in the Swiss squad of immigrant lineage or immigrants themselves.
No language barriers
The joke in the team is that together they speak most languages in Europe, even those as rare as Rhaeto-Romanic, spoken by Nico Elvedi, one of its 50,000 speakers in the country. Some of them like Gavranovic speaks Croatian, Italian, French, German and English.
A European team with cultural, linguistic and racial inclusivity is not rare – a host of them like Belgium, England, the Netherlands, Germany and France have similar squads – but what makes Switzerland’s case different is that there is no history of colonialism. Almost all of them are refugees, first- or second-generation, who have adapted and integrated themselves into a new country. The triumph thus is a vindication of the country’s longstanding and generous immigration and refugee policies.
The defeat of France could be just the start of something special, but one that has a resonance beyond the football field.