INTERVIEW-Soccer-Venezuela a new world for Swiss-raised player
DIELSDORF, SWITZERLAND, DEC 20 - By Brian Homewood
DIELSDORF, Switzerland Dec 20 (Reuters) - Frank Feltscher knew he had made the right decision as he lined up in the player's tunnel with Lionel Messi on the opposing side and 100,000 people in the stadium to watch the game.
Until that afternoon, Feltscher, born and raised in Switzerland, had been used to playing in front of only a few thousand people, often in freezing stadiums, in the Swiss Super League with his club Grasshoppers.
But, barely two months after playing for Switzerland in the European under-21 championship in Denmark, the midfielder found himself in the Venezuelan national side facing Messi's Argentina in a friendly in Calcutta.
"I was in India, there were 100,000 people. I was in the starting line-up, against Messi," he told Reuters in an interview at the Grasshoppers canteen.
"When I was in the tunnel before the game, I thought I was in a film."
Having been raised in Switzerland and played for the country at various youth levels, including the squad which finished as runners-up in Denmark, it seemed logical that he would he progress to their senior side.
But when the phone rang with an invitation to play at full international level, it came not from Switzerland but distant Venezuela.
Feltscher's mother is from Venezuela and he had faced a dilemma increasingly common for young players as he found himself having to choose which country to play for.
Although Feltscher had only made a few visits to the country, he knew he had to make a quick decision.
"It was a shock and it wasn't easy, because on one hand I expected the Swiss team but they didn't call me, so I know it was time to decide," he said.
"I spoke to my family, with friends, but nobody told me what I had to do, they told me to do what my heart told me."
"I said in football and in life, you can't wait. I have to grab the opportunity. Venezuela is on a positive upwards curve after the Copa America and I want to be part of this story. I called them and said ok."
He added: "It was like leaving a girlfriend after 10 years. I knew it was the right decision, but I still had a lot of memories of Switzerland. It was ending and a new story was starting."
Although he was raised in one of the world's safest and most organised countries, Feltscher said there was never any hint of culture shock in a country often seen as the opposite..
"Everything was better than I expected, the organisation, the people, the team, it was all very positive.
"They received me very well, like a lost brother. I felt very quickly part of the family."
The fairytale continued after his debut in India.
Feltscher's first competitive international was a 2-0 defeat in Ecuador in a World Cup qualifier, where he struggled to cope with the high altitude, but days after that Venezuela pulled off a sensational 1-0 win over Argentina.
They drew the next game 1-1 in Colombia with Feltscher scoring the equaliser, earning him a mention from President Hugo Chavez the following day even if he could not pronounce his name.
"They told me he was talking about my goal on the television, although I think he called me Fletcher," he said.
Playing in the Swiss league and the South American qualifiers are two worlds, added Feltscher, whose younger brother Rolf has now followed suit and also opted for Venezuela.
"You play in front of thousands of people, who go mad in the stadium, one pass, one move and they're all making a noise," he said.
"We return to Switzerland and you play in front of 5,000 or 6,000 people and you have to motivate yourself. It's not easy."
Venezuela are the only South American team never to have qualified for the World Cup but, having taken seven points from their first four games, Feltscher believes they can make the breakthrough.
"I want to try to do something with Venezuela, to live something, to be part of a story and make 30 million Venezuelans happy."
Feltscher's departure is something of a blow for Switzerland which has invested heavily in youth development but, with so many players coming from immigrant backgrounds, often risks losing them to other countries.
Croatia's Mladen Petric and Ivan Rakitic, who were raised in Switzerland but chose to play for Croatia, are among those who have gone elsewhere.
A Swiss FA spokesman said that it was never good when a player chose to play for another national team, however only a handful had taken that option while a great many others had stayed with Switzerland.
The SFV added that some players such as Petric and Rakitic had played fewer big tournaments that they would have done if they had stayed with the Swiss, who have qualified for the last two World Cups.
Feltscher said that it was not a decision he had taken lightly and advised other players to remember that playing for a national team was a huge responsibility.
"It's not just any old thing to play for a country," he said. "Behind a decision like that are millions of people, the pride of the public and that's something you cannot play with."
"You can't go and play for a country and then change your mind."
(Editing by Justin Palmer; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)
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