Out with the old and in with the new: the changing order of Swiss football

Out with the old and in with the new: the changing order of Swiss football

The date is 4 December 1996 and the time is 20:28. Grasshopper Club Zürich and Ajax Amsterdam line up on the pitch of Hardturm stadium in Zürich. The Champions League tune blares through the crackling speakers of the Swiss champions’ atmospheric home. A draw tonight would be enough for Grasshoppers to advance to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Grasshoppers made their debut in the group stage of Europe’s finest club competition the season before 1995-96. Collecting just two points in a group with Real Madrid, Ajax and Ferencváros they failed to leave a lasting impression in their first acquaintance with Champions League football.

Grasshoppers’ young and talented squad wised up quickly, however. Yet another league title in 1996 secured Grasshoppers’ place in the last qualifying round of the Champions League the following season. Slavia Prague were beaten to progress to the group stage again. This time round the Swiss champions fared considerably better. Both Rangers and Auxerre left Hardturm empty-handed. More surprisingly, Ajax were beaten in Amsterdam in the second game of the campaign. A 30-yard pile driver from Murat Yakin sealed the win for Grasshoppers at the Amsterdam ArenA. Even a goalkeeper of Edwin van der Sar’s calibre was unable to prevent the ball from hitting the back of the net.

Back to 4 December 1996 at Hardturm stadium. Pierluigi Collina blows his whistle for the start of the match. The packed terraces behind both goals are bouncing while the 22 players on the pitch try to get to grips with the muddy surface. All ingredients for a classic European night are present.

In the end, Grasshoppers couldn’t cook up the right result. Despite Ajax’s poor league form and home advantage, Grasshoppers didn’t manage to get the point they needed to reach the quarter-finals. In a tough encounter Grasshoppers were unable to break down Ajax’s defence to cancel out Patrick Kluivert’s first half goal. Nevertheless, Grasshoppers showed that they were the real deal and a force to be reckoned with among Europe’s elite.

After two consecutive league titles and a successful Champions League adventure expectations grew, but for many different reasons Grasshoppers have struggled to repeat previous achievements since those memorable Champions League nights in 1996.

The club has a long-standing history. Founded by English students from Manchester in 1886, Grasshoppers are Switzerland’s record title holders with 27 wins, though Switzerland’s most successful football team hasn’t been able to celebrate a league title for over a decade. So where did it all go wrong for Grasshoppers?

Where football has risen in popularity and TV deals became more lucrative than ever in many countries, this can’t be said about the situation in Switzerland. Ice hockey remains a fierce rival in the popularity rankings and growing crowd trouble over the years has led to a further decline in popularity among families and casual match-goers to visit their local football stadiums in the early 2000s.

The declining interest in the domestic football league resulted in a less interesting product for potential investors and sponsors; TV money and sponsorship deals dried up and clubs had to slash their budgets.

The story goes that Grasshoppers struggled to cope with the new situation and quickly accumulated a huge debt. The club managed to stay afloat by cutting the budget eventually, but totally lost its competitiveness. Qualifying for European football and the extra revenue that comes with it were merely an illusion from then on.

On top of these circumstances, there was a major stadium fiasco. Grasshoppers moved into city rivals FC Zürich’s stadium in 2007, while Hardturm stadium was being demolished to make way for a brand new arena. The new stadium, backed and partly funded by the City of Zürich, was supposed to be ready in time for the European Championship in 2008. However, legal difficulties ensured the whole project never left the ground and Grasshoppers have practically been homeless since. To date there is still no certainty regarding a new home and Grasshoppers continue to play their matches at Letzigrund, FC Zürich’s home.

While Grasshoppers have struggled to come to terms with their new position in the last decade, FC Basel have flourished ever since. Their brand new stadium, large fan base and financial support from a local billionaire have put Basel firmly in the driving seat of Swiss football.

Basel was born after a meeting of football enthusiasts in one of the town’s restaurants in 1893. In the early days, before they played professionally, a local man named Hans Kamper captained the newly formed club. He became better known by his adopted Catalan name, Joan Gamper, in the following years as one of the founder members of FC Barcelona and later on as president of the club. Whether his influence at Barcelona has anything to do with the striking similarities between the badges of each club is unknown.

A successful period lasting from 1967 until 1980, which saw seven league titles won, was Basel’s first experience with sustained success. In the 1980s Basel’s results started to decline gradually and this eventually led to relegation in 1988. After six seasons in the wilderness of Swiss football Basel returned to the top flight. The following years were spent in mid-table obscurity, though Basel’s fortunes were about to change dramatically.

Ironically, it was a match against Grasshoppers in 1999 that would indirectly lead to Basel’s upcoming success and beat the hegemony of their rivals in Swiss football. Gisela Oeri, a German philanthropist who is married to one of the richest men in Switzerland, was among a select party invited by Basel’s board to attend this match. Oeri enjoyed herself so much that she decided she wanted to get involved with the club. Before the end of the year Oeri was part of the board of directors and within two years she was responsible for the day-to-day running of the club.

The newly opened St. Jakob-Park stadium brought immediate success and saw Basel win their first title in over 20 years during their first full season at their new home in the 2001-02 season. Oeri couldn’t contain her excitement after this milestone and jumped, dressed in a red and blue wetsuit, in the team bath with the players to celebrate. The cherry on the cake for Basel was their triumph over – you guessed it – Grasshoppers in the Swiss Cup final to claim the double that season.

With all going well on the pitch, things were on the up off it, too. Oeri’s passion rubbed off on everyone around the club. She hardly ever missed a game and worked hard to improve the image of the club. The growing hooligan problems in Swiss football were also a concern at Basel, and Oeri decided to tackle this problem hands-on. With the ever improving reputation of the club and Oeri’s commercial knowhow they managed to attract an array of new sponsors; one of these sponsors was Novartis.

When in Basel it’s hard to miss the gigantic Novartis Industrial Complex. The smoking chimney from the pharmaceutical company can be seen from afar. Novartis is one of the major players in its industry with a revenue of over £30 billion in 2015. As one of Basel’s most loyal sponsors since 2004 they have played their part in the club’s recent successes.

Oeri’s reign at Basel ended in 2012. Suffering with health problems she was unable to give her all for the club, resulting in her stepping back as chairwoman, though remaining in charge of the club’s academy she revolutionised over the years, which saw players like Ivan Rakitić, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri come through the ranks.

Oeri’s philosophy was to create a setup that could see their hottest prospects move from the youth team into their first team seamlessly by ensuring all youth teams play the same way as the senior side. Over 40 players have made the step to the first team since the overhaul of the system.

Basel fans needn’t have worried, as Oeri assured her earlier financial investments would remain in the club. Despite her absence on the board, Basel continued to thrive and clinched their seventh consecutive league title in 2016.

It hasn’t just been domestically Basel have managed to impress, though. The club reached the last-16 of the Champions League twice, as well as the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the Europa League over the last five years. With home attendances averaging around the 30,000 mark and great football on display, the Basel brand has never been stronger.

Grasshoppers’ current situation is the complete opposite to Basel’s. Just a couple of thousand hardcore fans continue to attend Grasshoppers’ home matches. Without the backing of a billionaire owner, a small budget and no stadium of their own it’s hard to see when the glory days will return for Grasshoppers.

Grasshoppers did, however, manage to get one over Basel in the Swiss Cup final of 2013 and have finished as runners-up twice in recent years, but to be able to thrive again domestically and make an impact in Europe there’s still a lot of work to be done. For now, Grasshoppers remain Switzerland’s most successful club with 27 league titles.

Basel are currently on 19 and have a long way to go to catch up with their rivals, though the Basel train doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

By Rob Wolfs. Follow @rwldn

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