It is difficult to put your finger on what defines national identity. When it comes to Switzerland, however, it is practically impossible. The country consists of 26 cantons, each with very individual political, historical and cultural backgrounds. The country even lacks a common language, with Italian, French, Romansch and German all spoken. “In fact,” says Rainer Maria Salzgeber, Switzerland’s most popular football tv-presenter, “the national football team is one of the few things the Swiss have in common.”
The 40-year-old has done his part in making the Nati, as the Swiss endearingly call their national side, as popular as it is today. For 13 years, Salzgeber has been national broadcaster Schweizer Fernsehen’s sport anchor, analysing defeats and celebrating victories. But the make-up of the Nati has continued to evolve, and as elsewhere in Europe, players with immigrant backgrounds – such as Hakan Yakin from Turkey, Gelson Fernandes from Cape Verde and Blaise Nkufo from Congo – have become stars of the squad, helping the country qualify for this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.
Salzgeber is not your average Swiss either. He comes from the Valais canton, an Alpine region with one of the most obscure-sounding German dialects. With his quirky mother tongue he will be talking to more than 4 million viewers at peak times during the World Cup. He will be at the heart of a Swiss media production that involves about 100 tv professionals, broadcasting every minute of the 64 matches. Unlike other networks, Swiss television will be reporting on games not only in one language, but simultaneously in French, Italian and German.
Monocle: The Swiss squad features players from all over the world; this and the multi-language broadcasting don’t match the image many people have of the country after the vote to ban the building of minarets. Is the world mistakenly depicting Switzerland as an intolerant or even xenophobic country?
Rainer Maria Salzgeber: The football community seems to have developed a different attitude towards other cultures. It is forced to. Switzerland is a country of immigrants. It always has been. And a lot of people who move here are from football-crazy countries.
M: So football doesn’t just unite the Italian, German and French regions. It also helps to integrate foreigners into Swiss society?
RMS: I think the football community, the fans and media, have understood that without immigrants, Swiss football would never be where it is today.
M: Aren’t you being a little too positive about Swiss football and its cross-cultural influence? A few years ago, during a game between arch rivals Basel and Zürich, fans threw bananas at African players.
RMS: Sadly, some football communities and fans are racist. But you shouldn’t associate this exclusively with Switzerland – Germany, England and especially Italy have similar problems. It’s in the lower leagues that problems are growing. Clubs with names like Galatasaray Zürich represent cultural groups, whose football loyalties obviously do not lie with Switzerland.
M: Emotions are a large part of football. How important are they in your reporting?
RMS: I try to create an atmosphere I can compare to a regulars’ table down at the pub – an intelligent regulars’ table of course. I want my guests in the studio to talk about football passionately and with a good sense of humour. Our coverage of the European Championships in Switzerland two years ago was a good example of this. One of my guests was the former Germany manager Berti Vogts. We spent a lot of the time laughing about Swiss and German rivalry. In fact we laughed so much, German newspapers like the Frankfurter Allgemeine and the Süddeutsche picked up on it, praising how much fun pre- and post-game programmes were on Swiss tv.
M: How are you preparing for the World Cup in South Africa?
RMS: I’ll read up on the country and the cities hosting the games. And naturally, there are a few teams I need to learn a bit more about, such as Honduras or Chile, Switzerland’s opponents in the group stage. But most of the big teams like Spain, Germany and Brazil, I know everything there is to know. Reporting on the World Cup is like piloting a plane. You can fly anywhere you like. But a little information on your destination can always come in handy.
M: If Switzerland drop out of the World Cup early, who will their fans support?
RMS: He or she will enjoy every goal Germany concedes. When it comes to Germany, the Swiss are very malicious.
M: Is Switzerland a football-mad nation?
RMS: We are an enthusiastic football nation but we’re not fanatic. Everybody will be glued to the tv if Switzerland reach the World Cup’s knock-out round. However, even if by some miracle we manage to win, the country won’t come to a standstill. The following day, life will carry on pretty much the same, as if nothing had ever happened.
Rainer Maria Salzgeber’s CV
1969: Born in the Valais canton
1988: Plays in goal for lowly FC Raron for three years
1994: Quits history studies at the University of Bern to start a two-year internship at Swiss Television
1996: Attends the European Champion-ships in England as a commentator
2000: Presents European Championships in Belgium and Holland as TV anchor for the first time
2007: Presenter of Fifa Gala for World Player of the Year
2008: Wins the award for Swiss Sports Journalist of the Year for coverage of the European Championships
Switzerland’s highs and lows
World ranking: 18
Number of times qualified for World Cup: Nine
Highest finish: Reached the quarter-finals in 1934, 1938 and 1954
Average salary for first division footballer: €15,000 a month
Worst football moment: Losing to Ukraine in a shoot-out at the 2006 World Cup in Germany
Best football moment: Crushing Romania 4-1 at the US World Cup in 1994
Football hero: Current national captain and top goalscorer Alex Frei