Looking back, perhaps the jeers changed Haris Seferovic’s career. The suggestion would have been cold comfort at the time: it was November 2017 and, although Switzerland were about to squeak through a World Cup play-off against Northern Ireland, things would have been easier if their centre-forward could score. Seferovic had missed two clear chances and the crowd at St Jakob-Park let him know it upon his substitution three minutes from time. He received a scornful send-off and, given his replacement was the prodigious Breel Embolo, there was every reason to question his future in international football. “The whistles triggered something in me, I had to process them,” Seferovic said two years later. “I told myself that I would never give up, and kept working.”
It may have taken time but the reward has been thrilling. The headers Seferovic planted past Hugo Lloris on an extraordinary occasion in Bucharest, his second and third goals of Euro 2020, helped to give Switzerland their greatest footballing moment and completed a night of personal affirmation. Seferovic has always been hard to read: profligate to prolific, heroic to horrific, he has lurched between the extremes to an often wild degree. During major tournaments he has often cut an unfortunate figure, showing up time and again but fluffing his lines. But he arrived at this one in the form of his life and at 29 a talent that felt jagged around the edges is making itself whole.
Amid the chaotic celebrations that followed Switzerland’s last-16 win Seferovic’s wife, Amina, spoke to the Swiss newspaper Blick. “He’s a giant fighter,” she said. “In the course of his career he had to, and sometimes still has to, take a lot of criticism. Some players break because of it. He is mentally unbreakable.”
Reinforcing the point against Spain on Friday would offer particular satisfaction. Seferovic spent the 2013-14 campaign at Real Sociedad but it was one of those years, and there have been a few, when little went right. Everything went downhill after a goal on his debut: he scored four times all season, off-field issues hardly helping his cause, and he was shipped off for a patchy three years at Eintracht Frankfurt. It is at Benfica, whom he joined in 2017, where Seferovic has fluctuated the most: his four seasons have brought seven, 27, nine and 26 goals in that order. Last season he was second-top scorer in the Portuguese league despite contracting Covid-19 over Christmas. As things stand he is Benfica’s leading man and has attained similar status for his country.
Although they may be realising it belatedly, Switzerland are fortunate to have tied him down. Seferovic’s parents settled in the country as gastarbajters – the name given to emigrants from the former Yugoslavia – in the 1980s and he was eligible to play for Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 2009 he top-scored for Switzerland in their Fifa Under-17 World Cup win but, later that year, could be seen sharing a stage with Edin Dzeko in Sarajevo.
Dzeko had been named Bosnian player of the year; Seferovic received the under-19s award and it began a courtship that could have ended differently. He would hold talks about switching to represent his parents’ homeland, even meeting up with Bosnia-Herzegovina’s senior team before a match against Slovenia in 2012. “Of course I want to play for Bosnia, but I must visit the national team first,” said Seferovic, who was then a Fiorentina player. Whatever happened at that gathering in Ljubljana, the Bosnians never got him over the line; the following February, he was capped by Switzerland against Greece.
People close to Seferovic feel his Bosnian heritage has nonetheless hewn him. His father, Hamza, continues to work in a factory near the town of Sursee and he has inherited that earthiness. He is a regular visitor to the area around Sanski Most, where his parents grew up, and has become heavily involved with local charities. Last year he donated to hospitals struggling with medical supplies when the pandemic began; he has also helped to build a playground, and other contributions, offered anonymously, have not gone unnoticed. The adulation for Seferovic in those parts has never been conditional and it is reciprocated: on his left elbow he has a tattoo depicting Bosnia’s contours and the national lily symbol.
Perhaps, in those dark moments four years ago, Seferovic might have wondered what a partnership with Dzeko would have looked like. In fact the pair have similar styles but he has become his own man, even if his grip on Swiss affections has remained precarious. A Nations League hat-trick against Belgium in 2018 began his rehabilitation but, as recently as a profligate display against Wales early in this summer’s tournament, some pundits suggested his coach, Vladimir Petkovic, should drop him.
Nobody would say that any more. There is sometimes a sense among second-generation immigrants in Switzerland that they are only truly considered Swiss when the going is good, but it would be hard for anyone to row back on Seferovic now. The win over France achieved the unthinkable: it brought people on to the streets, united by a euphoria football has rarely sparked in their country. Even if his hot streak ends against Spain, his status as a national symbol seems secure.
“I used to get upset about missed opportunities and because of these negative thoughts, I’d lose my concentration,” Seferovic said before Euro 2020. “Now I’m calmer. If there is a chance, I’ll just shoot.” That approach may yet take him back to a top league: Tottenham were keen last year but ended up taking his teammate Carlos Vinícius. Another barnstormer on Friday would make that lonely night in Basel seem a lifetime ago. Additional reporting by Sasa Ibrulj