If you looked at the Switzerland side at the 2006 World Cup, you would be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of United Colours of Benetton advertisement. It is a sign of multi-culturalism and the changing socio-economic landscape in Europe that the squad should include players whose parents or grandparents hailed from Spain, France, Germany, Turkey, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Albania, Macedonia and Italy.
It is not surprising then that a son of Italian immigrants like Tranquillo Barnetta should feel right at home with the Swiss side: after all, it was not that different from the multi-ethnic neighbourhood he hails from in Saint Gallen. Growing up in a mini-United Nations had its benefits, especially when it came to talking football. Every child on his street supported two teams: a Swiss one and one from back home.
Barnetta was no different, singing the praises of Atalanta, the club his father supported, while also professing an allegiance for the local side St Gallen. The result was that, as Barnetta himself puts it, "kids in my neighbourhood were probably the most cosmopolitan, best-informed youngsters in the world, at least when it came to knowing about football". From a young age, football came very easy to him. Fleet of foot, with an uncanny knack for opening opposing defences he was a part of the Swiss national team's youth set-up from a young age, representing his country at every level from the under 14s onward. In 2002, he starred for a very talented Swiss side at the European Under 17 championship.
They won every game (including a 3-0 semi-final thumping of England, which was led by a young centre-forward named Wayne Rooney) on their way to the finals, where they defeated France on penalty kicks. As soon as he returned from the Euros, St Gallen had no qualms about promoting him directly into the first team. Indeed, his first start for the club was in a European game (admittedly, it was an InterToto Cup fixture, but still...). By the following season scouts were knocking on his door.
He featured for Switzerland at the European Under 21 championship and then, a few weeks later, was called straight up into the full national side. No use in waiting any longer, that is just how good he was. By the end of the summer he had been picked by Bayer Leverkusen. He had offers from Italy and France, but chose Germany. Why? "Leverkusen made me feel as if they had a plan for me, some of the other clubs made me feel as if they were simply stockpiling young players," he said.
Leverkusen loaned him out to Hannover and the season began well. But in early October he tore his cruciate and was out for six months. He finished up the campaign and returned to the Bay Arena, unsure of what the future might hold. Again, the doubts were quashed pretty quickly. He established himself as a regular straight away and, five years on, he has not looked back. Managers love his versatility and intelligence on the pitch.
"Left-wing, right-wing, central midfield, I could put him anywhere and I knew what I would get," says Michael Skibbe, who managed him for three seasons. "He's unselfish, he rarely makes mistakes and makes the players around him better. He has star quality, but he's humble and he always puts the team first. I don't think a coach could ask for more." It is heady praise for a level-headed young man who is just entering his footballing maturity. Bayer Leverkusen are top of the league, his agent's phone will soon start ringing again. Spain, England, Italy ... who knows what the next stop is?
Whatever happens, one thing is certain: he is bound to be prepared. He can thank his childhood years for that. email@example.com