Food, Switzerland and Slow Foot

Stefan’s speech at the Slow Foot conference

22 September 2007


My name is Stefan Howald and I am the representative from the Swiss team FC Levante Wibi.

This tournament is part of the Cheese07 festival, and I would like to start with some cheap jokes, so they are out of the way. As you might know, some of the most well-known Swiss cheeses are famous for the holes in it, which lends itself easily to some comparisons with the defence of Swiss football teams. Indeed, one of the more memorable victories in Swiss football history, a win in the 1930s over once mighty Austria, was achieved despite a fairly cheesy defence which was broken five times, Switzerland winning in the end with the spectacular result of 7 goals to 5. Hopefully, our own defence this afternoon will not succumb to this metaphor.

There is a second connection between Swiss football and food. In the 1930s again, Switzerland perfected the so-called Swiss Riegel, a defence with 3 defenders covering the whole width of the pitch by shifting from one side to the other. Now, the Swiss German word for this tactic, the Riegel, translates as a bar into English, and a bar might be, appropriately enough, not only a defensive tactical device but another of Switzerland’s famous food exports, namely a chocolate bar.

On a slightly more serious note, Switzerland is a good example of international connections created by football. Did you know, for instance, that the second football club ever founded on the European continent was formed in Switzerland, in 1879, and so FC Sankt Gallen is older than, say, Liverpool or Manchester United. Obviously this was only possible with some help from the motherland of football. Indeed, some of the most illustrious clubs in Switzerland which are still playing in the top flight, still have English names: Grasshoppers Zürich and Young Boys Bern (and, on a lower level, Young Fellows Zürich and Old Boys Basel). Some years later, international connections already cut the other way as well: In 1899 Hans Gamper from Winterthur near Zürich co-founded the mighty FC Barcelona, and not too far away from here, Internationale Milano took its name because at its beginnings in 1908 a majority of the players were foreigners, quite a few of them Swiss.

Now, in our time of globalisation, international connections are in danger of being reduced to economic relations and subordinations. The corporate takeover of football is a real threat. What can be done against it? Well, the first and foremost defence is not to be restricted to a passive consumer of football, but to be actively involved in playing football. That is what we are doing. And we are doing it in a slightly different way. Since 1977 there exists in Switzerland a Progressive Swiss Football Association. This Alternative Football League started with a match between a team of anarchists and a group which tried to infiltrate and/or to subvert the famous or infamous Swiss army. Soon, an Alternative League with teams from left-wing parties, cooperative workshops and restaurants was started. In its beginnings 30 years ago – those were the days – the league consisted of mixed-gender-teams, barefooted players with long beards and matches without referee but grass-root justice discussed and handed out in the middle of the pitch. Most of these experiments had to be abandoned but one has survived: it is still not allowed to play with studs, so – getting our excuses in quite early –  we might be at a disadvantage this afternoon.

The somewhat cryptic name of our club is a composite of, secondly (Wibi), an abbreviation for the address (Weinbergstrasse, vineyard’s street) at which several of the players lived and drank wine together, and, firstly (Levante), the restaurant most of them are working during an international theatre festival every summer, which is run by the team’s regular sponsor, the famous chef of famous restaurant Tessinerkeller, which in itself shows the multi-cultured nature of our enterprise, because the name refers to the southern, Italian-speaking canton of Ticino.

At the moment the Alternative League in Zürich consists of 25 teams in the First Division, 8 teams in the Veteran’s Division and 13 Women’s teams.

Now, the motto of this tournament is «Good, clean and fair». No words are necessary concerning the meaning of «good»: our deeds on the pitch must speak louder than words. But «clean» and «fair» need some explanation. Our league contains some teams with foreign players which don’t find the space in the official football league. We pride ourselves in being multi-cultural and open-minded, and to accommodate different styles of playing and of emotional involvement. However, this is not always without its problems. Football is a means of achieving social status, so it can be fiercely contested. Different cultural and emotional reactions have to be taken into account. These are differences we have to deal with and to negotiate. How could it be otherwise? Football is part of society and reflects this wider society.

There exists at the moment in Switzerland a rabidly right-wing party which is part of the coalition government and which impressed on the country some of the toughest and inhumane ant-immigration laws in Europe. The Riegel I mentioned before, the bar, has, in German, another connotation: it can also mean a barrier. Official politics tries to erect barriers between peoples, to construct an infamous «fortress Europe». This is a policy we have to reject politically, as citizens, and practically, off and on the pitch.

Indeed, football can be a force to counteract such tendencies. The Swiss national team consists of quite a few second generation citizens, so-called Secondos, from Italy, Spain and former Yugoslavia. This fact could lead to a more open-minded attitude. It could, but it is by no means a guarantee for it. Sometimes it fosters resentments as well.

Next year, Switzerland, together with Austria, will host den European championship. Once again, a corporate take-over looms. In our home-town, in Zürich, there has been a fierce struggle concerning the function and the shape of a new stadium for the Championship. Should it become a shopping mall, a consumerist temple, with a football stadium attached, or should it be, first and foremost, a football stadium, surrounded by the necessary infrastructure? Happily enough, at least in the case of the stadium of FC Zürich, the club we support, it will be, or it just has become this weekend, the second version.

Euro 2008 will provide another opportunity to strengthen the grass-root-movement, beyond the official fan-zones and fan-miles. At the moment of speaking, the chances of all the other three nations which will take part in today’s tournament, to qualify for Euro 2008, are still intact. So we might be able to organise our own alternative Slow Foot tournament next year in Switzerland during Euro08.

I would like to add a note of caution. Football is part of society, but it is not a replacement or a placebo for society. It shouldn’t get overloaded with meaning and expectations. Football can’t, on its own, rectify or heal the failures and fault lines of society. After all, it is just a game. Good, clean and fair.


[back to main tour page]