No Passage Through the Alps

For Switzerland’s stars, playing in France is a big non-non.

Jean-Pierre Clatot / AFP / Getty Images
Jean-Pierre Clatot / AFP / Getty Images

What’s the beef — or boeuf — between France and Switzerland? The two neighbors whose teams meet Friday in the World Cup have friendly relations and a common language, but Swiss players avoid the French league as though it were a Velveeta factory. When offered the chance to play across their western border, why do Swiss stars almost always say non?

Swiss stars, you say? Yes, Switzerland is one of this World Cup’s more unheralded teams. Despite having a top eight FIFA ranking and thus being one of the seeded teams in the tournament, nobody is particularly optimistic about their chances. They are in fact widely considered to be only the second-best team in their group, trailing France, a traditional soccer powerhouse.

That’s already enough to make the matchup between the two fascinating for handicappers and FIFA skeptics. And given their geographic proximity, the natural expectation would be a high degree of cross-pollination in talent development as well. Switzerland is a smaller country without a robust domestic league, while France has a deep talent pool and what is popularly considered a top five league in Europe. Despite that, a cursory examination of the Swiss roster shows that not a single one of the 23 players plies his trade in France’s Ligue 1.

The biggest stars, attacking midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri and left back Ricardo Rodríguez, started out playing in the domestic league before being bought as young players by big clubs in Germany — Bayern Munich for Shaqiri and and VfL Wolfsburg for Rodríguez — where they continued their development. Others did the same in Italy. The squad’s journeyman veteran, Philippe Senderos, is about to wind down his career at Aston Villa in England, and the rest of the 23 play domestically. In France, there’s only a big gaping hole. It’s enough to tempt a person into theorizing all sorts of things about cultural identity, the roots of the game, and scouting networks and unconscious biases in Switzerland.

Or not. A brief look at the members of France’s national team turns up something equally interesting. Surprisingly few of their players play at home either. Of the eight who do, three are at Paris Saint-Germain, the petrodollar-fueled superclub that operates almost as a separate entity from the rest of the league it has begun routinely to win. In fact, France only has one more domestically-based player than Switzerland does. Moreover, the development path for its young players is strikingly similar to that of its smaller neighbor. Striker Karim Benzema became a star at Lyon before moving to Real Madrid. Breakout midfield juggernaut Paul Pogba was actually snapped up from a French youth program by Manchester United before eventually being sold to Juventus.

France and Switzerland both belong to a group of nations that produce players more talented than their leagues can support. Portugal finds itself in a similar situation (it has eight domestic players on its roster) and so does Belgium (three). It seems likely that, despite its reputation, the French league simply isn’t good enough to tempt Swiss talent when the Bundesliga in Germany and Serie A in Italy are equally viable options.

So who does play in Ligue 1, aside from French players not good enough to move elsewhere? The answer, unsurprisingly to anybody who has ever heard the term post-colonialism, is players from Africa. A glance at the squads of Cameroon, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast show seven, five, and five players working in France. Algeria is absent from this list only because the country is so intertwined with France that the majority of its players are in fact French players who have themselves left the country to play elsewhere. And many of the most iconic African players — Didier Drogba, Asamoah Gyan, and Gervinho, among others — either began their careers in France or used French teams as stepping stones along their paths.

In other words, the lack of Swiss players in France says more about Ligue 1 than it does about the Swiss. Indeed, the Swiss test is an almost scientific way of showing that the French league’s talent level is not as high as popular claims might have you believe. After all, it’s not as though Swiss players would avoid France because of the food. With the exception of Paris Saint-Germain, Ligue 1 basically serves as a feeder system for other, better leagues in Europe — just like the Swiss league, except with a special bridge to Africa. Friday will just be the rare occasion when all of their respective poulets finally come home to roost.

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