Italian team faces warm welcome in Zurich

Italian fans are shy and retiring Keystone

Hopes are high among Italian ex-pats for the two games played by their national team in Zurich during the Euro 2008 football championships.

This content was published on March 25, 2008 minutes

Italians make up the largest group of foreigners in the canton. A visit to fans ahead of the competition shows that the legendary Italian passion for football runs deep in their veins.

The décor is surprisingly sober. There are no bottles of wine or fake rustic hams suspended from the ceiling - only a few Italian flags serve as a reminder of the restaurant's origins.

A sign above the doorway reads "Forza Azzurri", a reference to the Italian team and the name of the restaurant, which is situated not far from the Letzigrund stadium, scene of Italy's games against Romania and France in June.

Football is one of two great passions – along with good food – which link the two restaurant owners, Stefano Schiavano and Gianni Merola.

"When there are big games we usually have about 250 people here," said Merola, who hails from Salento, in the southern heel of Italy, but who has been in Switzerland for 13 years.

Two huge wall-mounted screens dominate the room. Many of those who come here are part of a Juventus fan club.

World Cup memories

This March evening Juventus is playing Napoli. The clock shows 7.30 pm and the restaurant is slowly beginning to fill. The screens show images of the Italian team as world football champions in Germany in 2006.

The crowd is rapt even though they have seen the pictures millions of times before. A customer, proudly wearing an Azzurri strip, is jubilant over the goal by Andrea Pirlo against Ghana.

Photographs are passed round as well. After the World Cup final with France, a huge crowd erupted into the Zurich streets in celebration.

"I could look at these pictures a thousand times and still never get tired of them," says Donato, a 21-year-old Napoli fan.

"It was indescribable, the atmosphere was fantastic," adds Merola.

An opinion undoubtedly shared by many fans in the room, but their eyes are glued to the screen. The referee has finally got the game under way.

Emotions run high

Emotions start to run high as Pavel Nedved shoots wide. A customer laments loudly.

The first half finishes 0-0. The second is dominated by Juventus. Alessandro Del Piero's shot misses by a couple of centimetres. A collective "noooo" thunders around the room. Donato pretends to wipe sweat from his brow.

Two minutes before time Vincenzo Iaquinta scores after a splendid pass from Del Piero. The Juventus fans let out a sigh of relief. Donato and his friend Luca try not to look too disappointed.

The two Napoli fans may have missed out this time, but the party was fun. This will continue in June, says Merola.

"We will certainly do something special during the Euros, for example we'll try and invite some of the players down after the games," said Merola, proudly showing a picture of Fabio Grosso, who came to the restaurant after the Italy-Portugal friendly in the Letzigrund earlier this year.

Welcoming Italy to Zurich will be a once in a lifetime experience, he adds.

Italian at heart

For Donato and Luca, Euro 2008 reminds them of their origins. "We want to show that we are Italians and proud of it," they say in chorus.

The times when Italian migrant workers were not made to feel welcome, and a local Zurich parliamentarian even spoke of sending thousands of foreigners back over the Swiss border, are long gone.

But the young men say they are sometimes teased about being Italian and that football and the Euros will be a chance to redress this.

Both will be watching the Euro 2008 games on the giant outdoor screens at the Bellevue square in Zurich, as they did for the World Cup. Zurich is expected to attract many Italians from the homeland as well.

But what happens if Switzerland plays Italy? The two say there's not doubt who they'll be supporting.

"Even if I've got a Swiss passport," explains Donato. "My heart remains Italian."

swissinfo, based on an Italian article by Daniele Mariani in Zurich

Italians in Zurich

At the end of 2006 there were 51,934 Italians in the canton of Zurich, the largest ex-pat group. Nowhere else are there so many Italians in Switzerland.

In 1990 almost 73,000 Italians lived in canton Zurich.

The drop comes from people returning home and Italians gaining Swiss citizenship.

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Euro 2008

Co-hosts Switzerland and Austria qualified automatically for the tournament, which takes place from June 7-29, 2008.

The 31 games will be played in four cities in Switzerland (Basel, Bern, Geneva and Zurich) and four cities in Austria (Innsbruck, Klagenfurt, Salzburg and Vienna). The final will be held in Vienna on June 29.

Zurich hosts three matches at the rebuilt Letzigrund stadium: Romania v France (June 9), Italy v Romania (June 13) and France v Italy (June 17).

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