Swiss fan fervour sparks debate

Swiss fans gathered in droves when their side beat Togo on Monday Keystone

Anthropologist Fabrizio Sabelli tells swissinfo that the enthusiasm of Swiss fans during the World Cup is driven by a need for a collective ritual and not nationalism.

This content was published on June 21, 2006

Such rituals are lacking in an increasingly globalised society, says Sabelli, an academic based in Switzerland.

swissinfo: Do these extraordinary shows of support surrounding the national team signal a return to patriotism or even nationalism?

Fabrizio Sabelli: Neither. In my opinion what we're seeing has got nothing to do with these two concepts – at least in the classic sense. I think it's simply about rediscovering a sort of collective feeling shared at a celebration and above all the thought of a potential victory.

The fact that we have to take on – and defeat – someone else stirs up certain emotions, which could appear nationalistic or patriotic. I would call that a fake war or a "war game".

But it remains a game and it doesn't last for long. Once the World Cup is over, no one talks about it anymore and people get back to their daily lives.

swissinfo: But this fervour didn't seem as strong when Switzerland last played in a World Cup back in 1994...

F.S.: True. I think times change. We're currently going through a pretty dull cultural period, which offers few gatherings like the World Cup, and people need them. They want to get together because they are increasingly lonely. And this solitude is not a uniquely Swiss malaise – it is found in all contemporary societies. Everyone needs rituals but there is a dearth of them in our globalised society.

swissinfo: And perhaps it's also a reaction against fears that one's identity could be harmed by globalisation?

F.S.: I don't see much of a connection between sport and ideologies. Globalisation is already well established in people's heads and they act accordingly. But it is clear that globalisation does not create moments of collective excitement. However, there is still football...

swissinfo: If Switzerland make it through to the second round, they could meet Spain. Given the sizeable Spanish community in Switzerland, do you think the "war game" could spill over into the streets?

F.S.: If it did, it would mean everything I've said is wrong and we really are seeing a return to a sort of political or ideological nationalism. But I don't think that will happen at all.

Any confrontations would remain playful and I think they could even have the opposite effect – we would have a chance to meet our opponents, get to know them better and perhaps even respect them if they win.

swissinfo: This Swiss team is made of different backgrounds, yet it doesn't prevent members from presenting a united front under the Swiss flag...

F.S.: It's a concrete example of Switzerland's success regarding the integration of immigrants. And it's not unique – look at the French team, which has even more "foreigners".

What is interesting is that when people look at these foreigners putting themselves out for the Swiss team, they consider them Swiss. It's an effect of the magic of sport.

swissinfo: Do you think this magic will survive the World Cup?

F.S.: I don't. I'm convinced the events in Germany have an ephemeral value. It's all about the moment and the team, which embody the period of a tournament, not beyond.

I don't believe football can have a determining influence on how we perceive others.

swissinfo-interview: Marc-André Miserez

In brief

An estimated 35,000 Swiss fans watched Switzerland take on France in their opening World Cup game in the 52,000-seater Gottlieb-Daimler stadium in Stuttgart.

Some 50,000 Swiss fans made up the vast majority of the crowd at the 65,000-seater Westfalen stadium in Dortmund on Monday.

Switzerland take on South Korea for their last group game in the city on Friday.

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Key facts

Fabrizio Sabelli was born in Rome in 1940. The trained anthropoligist has taught at several Swiss universities and institutes.
He also made a name for himself as author and expert on Swiss development aid.
Sabelli has also worked as curator of cultural projects, including the national exhibition, Expo.02.

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