I found the Swiss federal spirit! It is in Swiss Cinquième Ligue of football

21 December 2021
null - © Markus Spiske/Unsplash Markus Spiske

A great deal of literature has addressed the interconnections between existing federal structures and their societal substratum. The general statement on this matter is that not only does the society itself affect the very institution of a federal system, it also plays an important role in shaping its functioning. And, arguably, this is as well true the other way around.

My one-year research stay in Fribourg, Switzerland has all but confirmed this, although not specifically in the form imagined by, among others, W.S. Livingston and M. Burgess.1 In fact, it was football that showed me how deep the interiorization in society of some fundamental elements featuring the Swiss federal form of government, is.

In August 2021, I was literally dying to find a way to socialize in Switzerland, after the easing of the Covid measures which had started in spring, and I eventually found a football team based in Fribourg. So, I began my experience at F.C. La Centrale, team La Trois, which plays in the fifth Swiss league - Switzerland’s lowest.

The very first day of training I was introduced to everybody. It immediately felt like there was something different from my previous experiences, something curious. It was indeed impossible to tell who the coach was. “I only see players here, who will be leading the training, managing the matches and all this stuff?”, I wondered. The answer was as clear as it was surprising. “No coach, or, better, we all are the coach”, my teammate Alex told me. “This year, we have agreed to share the burden and the pleasure of coaching.” In other words, a self-governing team composed of equals, with different backgrounds country-wise and football-wise, all having the same dignity as players and as managers. According to this principle, every week a different group of two-four teammates is assigned the task of planning the training, as well as defining the initial lineup and the successive substitutions for the match. Put differently, this means that the executive figure who leads the team is not a single person, but following a system of rotation, everyone gets a chance. “Plus, when it comes to matches, we are all supposed to play, no one should be left on the bench for the entire game”. All the members of the team are taken into consideration and everybody is meant to participate. Equal dignity, respect for all the members, self-government, shared government, cooperation, rotation, participation. This must sound familiar to federal scholars. These are indeed all foundational elements of the Swiss federal system, a federal institutional structure informed by consociational principles and a strong cooperative political culture. Probably it makes no sense to look for an explanation as to how much the federal structures affected the society or the other way around, precisely because this is not the critical point as regards this experience. What is instead interesting is that the society reproduces federal principles, and the government structures reproduce societal dynamics: they are inextricably intermingled.

Well, that is true, this is not a unique example in the history of football, and others were much more difficult to handle and had way more success, both in terms of visibility and results. Who, passionate of football, does not fondly remember the self-managed Democracia Corinthiana team (with “Doctor” Socrates) which won the Paulista league?

But there is a difference, I guess. The Democracia Corinthiana model was a revolutionary experience. The La Trois’s model is part of ordinary life, it is something that no one perceives as something imposed, odd or exceptional. It follows specific principles that are not only consciously accepted but also somewhat intrinsically understood and shared. That is how things go in Switzerland.

1: W.S. Livingston, A Note on the Nature of Federalism, in 67 Political Science Quarterly (1952), 81-95 and M. Burgess, In Search of the Federal Spirit: New Comparative Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012) are two authors whose contribution with regard to the analysis of the connections between federalism, society, and political culture cannot be overestimated. Livingston’s thesis comes down to the statement that the characteristics of the societies affect and at the same time are affected by the institution and the functioning of a given form of government. This is the case with federal political systems, which recognize and manage some existing “federal qualities” of the society; Burgess’s book is a journey through federal ideas, in order to find a core content of federalism, which is supposed to embed a set of basic values that should be shared by the society in order for a federal system to have success, thus underlining that the societal context and the attendant political culture play a major role in shaping federal systems.

Nicolò Alessi

Nicolò Alessi is a PhD student in Public Comparative Law at the Universities of Verona and Fribourg. His research deals with the role of law in multicultural societies, focusing on the constitutional instruments for the accommodation of diversity. He has travelled all over Italy to study and has lived in many different Italian cities, but sometimes he misses the times when he worked in a hut in the mountains of Aosta Valley.


Alessi, N. I found the Swiss federal spirit! It is in Swiss Cinquième Ligue of football.

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