The arrival of a recently retired world leader was the last thing anyone expected at the under 17’s European netball championship’s at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall.
But that is exactly what they got as Micheline Calmy-Rey, who stepped down as President of Switzerland at the end of 2011, inconspicuously arrived for the Sunday afternoon award ceremony.
The tournament was won comfortably by the dominant England team, with Scotland finishing third on goal difference to Wales. But for the neutral the favourites’ march to victory was less important than the fantastic atmosphere generated by the Swiss touring party.
Their ex-President’s attendance encapsulated the sort of wonderful goodwill that pervaded the Swiss camp, whose team-spirit and vocal support lit up Kelvin Hall all weekend.
The difference between Calmy-Rey casually joining in chatting with the other teams following the trophy presentations and the sort of ruckus if, say, Tony Blair had turned up, was startling.
Calmy-Rey’s granddaughter Oriane is a wing attack or centre for Switzerland, who were competing against Scotland development and Gibraltar in the development tournament.
The ex-President was eager to discuss the development of netball in Switzerland: “We’re very proud of the girls. It’s not easy for them because there’s no chance for competitions and it’s something new to play this level.
“We are just beginning. It’s not a sport anybody knows.”
Netball has only been played in Switzerland for the last five years, yet this was their third appearance at the under 17’s European netball championships. Started by a small group of enthusiasts in Geneva, Netball Switzerland is run by a few paid employees who are supported by volunteers.
The game was introduced in Geneva by teacher Jo Beveridge, who is now vice president of Netball Switzerland: “I was working in a school and decided we should play netball. Five years ago 12 children played netball, now there are 300-400.”
As the final whistle went in Switzerland’s last match of the tournament, the victorious Scotland development squad exchanged the sort of subdued well-dones and high-fives that meet most routine victories.
The scenes were very different amongst the Switzerland squad, who had just been beaten 40 -11, their fourth heavy defeat in a row. The mayhem started when their fans, who had been making a raucous noise throughout the majority of the game, somehow managed to increase the volume levels as they congratulated their team.
The players took the cue and joyous celebrations began, as those on the court were joined by the substitutes and coaching staff from the bench. All of a sudden it seemed that everywhere you looked in Kelvin Hall were hugs, beaming smiles and waving Swiss flags.
The tidal wave of good feeling swept up the Scotland development team, who joined their Swiss counterparts in posing for photos and generally having a good time. On a day when the immensely impressive England gave Wales a lesson in fast, ruthless netball, and Scotland broke Northern Irish hearts with a hard-fought victory, the climax of the Switzerland – Scotland development match was easily the most heart-warming moment of the day.
When the carnage had finally calmed down Swiss coach Victoria Knights shared her squad’s delight: “They’ve really enjoyed it. They played some fantastic netball. They don’t get this kind of competition back in Switzerland so they’ve really come away with a lot of experience.
“The parents and the association have been fantastic in supporting us. We wouldn’t be able to do it without them. It really lifted the girls, especially playing in Scotland against Scotland, you need lots of noise to counter that and I think it really helped today.”
All the teams at the European Championships were well supported, but the sizeable and noisy Swiss fans were all the more impressive for having travelled in knowledge that their team was in all likelihood going to get a good hiding.
But even when their worst fears were realised they didn’t give up supporting their team, and refused to stop having fun. Knights explained that setting realistic targets and individual goals for her players allowed them to take little wins away from their games.
Because Netball Switzerland receive only minimal backing, which goes towards kit and other overheads, it cost each player around £800 to be in Glasgow. Add to that the cost for the families and supporters, and it becomes a very expensive weekend.
Cathryn Rich, president of Netball Switzerland, explained why the sport struggles to generate interest: “We have the usual problems of getting girls involved in sport. Then there is the issue of parents having to make a choice between going to the chalet for skiing on the weekend or taking kids to training.
“The Swiss like football and ice hockey, which do little for women’s development. We need to grow a base into the local community, but we are already exceeding expectations.”
It wouldn’t have been surprising if, having had very little tournament practice, the team’s form dropped rapidly as the weekend went on. That they showed such levels of commitment and drive throughout all their games is testament to the character of the squad, and the excellent job being done the coaching staff.
Netball Switzerland are certainly not without ambition. They may not be competitive yet, but Rich plans to be challenging the more established sides soon: “We have lots of aims and lots of enthusiasm. We’re sending an open team to the European netball festival in Gibraltar, where they’ll start playing world ranking matches.”
Fans want to watch the best players available playing their chosen sport, because they produce the highest quality play. But that doesn’t always translate to great entertainment.
England were easily the best team at Kelvin Hall, but their games weren’t particularly entertaining because they won easily. The most entertaining games of the weekend were between Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales because they were all so closely matched.
The downside to these intense encounters was the sight of emotionally wrecked players, particularly the Northern Irish girls who almost produced a momentous comeback against Scotland only to be cut short by the full time whistle.
Competitive sport inevitably results in winners and losers, but it is impossible to watch crying players being consoled by their equally teary parents without feeling a great deal of sympathy. It can be refreshing to watch teams, like Switzerland, who are simply delighted to be participating. Players having fun on the court radiate warmth to the crowd.
Obviously Switzerland won’t be in Glasgow when the Commonwealth Games comes around in 2014. But if the teams that come to compete, especially those who have no realistic chance of medals, are as determined to enjoy themselves as Switzerland, then the city has a lot to look forward to.