• Official languages: German, French, Italian, Romansh

In German it’s called the Röstigraben, and for a long time it split the Swiss dressing room in two.

Rösti is a potato dish popular in German-speaking Switzerland, and a Graben is a valley. Put together it’s how the Swiss describe the cultural split between the French- and German-speaking parts of their country.

Switzerland is officially quadrilingual, but as Italian and Romansh are in a minority, linguistic tension has generally been a two-way thing. The Romands (French-speaking Swiss) call the ‘other’ side la Suisse alémannique, while the Schweizerdeutsche know the francophone part of their country as Welschschweiz. Tellingly, the root word Welsch is a Germanic term for “stranger” (and it’s identical to the one found in ‘Wales’ and ‘Wallonia’, two other regions that have known their share of neighbourly issues).

In the 80s and 90s, this divide was a major issue for the Nati (Swiss national team), and was not just linguistic: the German-speaking players held to the Northern European stereotype of athleticism and graft, while the French-speaking players were altogether more technical in their approach.

The Secondos wave

These days in the Nati, Röstigraben tensions do not run as high. Sections of the Swiss media do, however, talk about another ‘valley’, this time between players with Swiss parents and the Secondos – second-generation immigrants, often of Balkan descent such as Shaqiri, Xhaka and Mehmedi.

This new multi-kulti generation are key to current success, but many harbour complex feelings of dual identity – expect high emotion for the likes of Shaqiri and Xhaka when Switzerland meet Albania. The Secondos have also become part of a wider debate on immigration in Switzerland (for more on which, take a look at Mike Phillips’ excellent piece in issue 13 of The Blizzard).

This is an issue more cultural than linguistic, though, and one that manager Vladimir Petković denies as presenting any real problems.

Who speaks what

These aren’t great times for football in la Romandie. The decline of clubs like Lausanne and Servette has coincided with fewer French speakers in the Nati. This does make the dressing-room situation more straightforward, though, with the remaining francophones – Gelson Fernandes, Djourou and Senderos – all being fluent in German.

Manager Petković – a naturalised Swiss born in Bosnia – elects to speak to his team in German, which all of the players understand. Nicknamed Il Dottore (The Doctor), Petković also speaks French, Italian, Russian and Spanish, as well as his native Bosnian, so he’s got the bases covered.

Over time, the common language in the dressing room has varied with the preferences of the manager and his players. Roy Hodgson spoke German with his team (throwing in the occasional cussword en français), while Artur Jorge insisted on French.

Incidentally, Petković uses standard German, not Swiss-German, and there is a big difference: besides variations in pronunciation and grammar, and the appearance of French loan-words, Swiss-German dialects are said to be far more emotionally expressive.

Choice phrases

Football phrases are invariably borrowed from Germany. A few in regular rotation include:

  • Flach spielen, hoch gewinnen: “keep the ball low and the score high”
  • Die Spieler müssen Gras fressen: “the players need to eat grass”, meaning they need to put in a shift
  • Sie spielen auf mehreren Hochzeiten: “they dance at several weddings”, used to talk about a team playing in several competitions
  • Er hat Scheisse am Fuss: “he has shit on his foot”, talking about a player who has just missed an easy chance
  • Sie müssen den Hammer rausholen: “they need to bring out the hammer”, used for a team who need to throw everything forward in pursuit of a late goal

Nicknames

Shaqiri is known as the “magic dwarf” (Zauberzwerg), for obvious enough reasons, while Gelson Fernandes and his irrepressible stamina have earned the nickname “Duracell”. Haris Seferović has found himself caught in off the field controversy, and is occasionally referred to as “Dirty Haris”.

Songs they sing

What with all that multilinguality in the stands, chants tend to rely on the international language of music, which is to say they don’t usually have lyrics. Failing that, “Schwiizer Nati olé olé” is simple enough for speakers of all Switzerland’s languages to throw their weight behind.

And finally…

Because the nickname “Nati” is pronounced “Natzi”,  it’s unsurprisingly not so popular in certain parts of the world. German journalists avoid saying it out loud, although the Swiss supposedly don’t make make the link between the two.


With thanks to Mämä and Silvan at Zwolf magazine.