The State of Swiss Club Football
May 27, 2019
Raiffeisen Super League
Most Championships: Grasshopper, 27
Last 5 Winners: Young Boys (18/19, 17/18), Basel (16/17, 15/16, 14/15)
UEFA Ranking: 17th
Highest Ranked Club: Basel, 30th
Interview with Swiss football expert, Craig King
Since the Europa League was rebranded, only Basel have made the last 16, making a semi-final once in the process. How have the last years been viewed by the Swiss football fans in this regard?
I think it’s generally been a success. European football, as you know, is a lot different these days. In the past Swiss teams like Neuchatel Xamax, Servette and others were regularly competing in the latter stages of European competition but it is a bit of a closed shop these days to the truly elite. Despite that, Swiss teams are enjoying their best success in the modern era.
As you mentioned, Basel made great strides in the Europa League reaching that semi-final and they followed it up with a Quarter-Final appearance the season after and they have reached the last 16 three times. Young Boys qualified this season for the UCL group stage for the first time ever and have reached the knockout rounds of the Europa League in 10/11 and 14/15.
St. Gallen, Sion, Lugano, Thun and Zurich have also played in the Europa League group stage (aided by Swiss Cup wins, granted) in the last decade. Sion reached the Round of 32 in 15/16, Thun dropped into the knockout rounds in 05/06 and played in the group in 13/14 while Zurich reached the knockout stage this season for the second time.
There have been fleeting moments before that, Thun and Zurich participated in the Champions League group stage in 05/06 and 09/10 respectively.but in terms of the number of Swiss teams regularly competing and enjoying some degree of success, it is a lot more. To give some context, only one team in the ten-team league has not played some form of European football in the last 4-5 years.
Do Swiss fans expect more from their club sides in Europe or do they realise it’s hard to compete?
There is a sense of both. In the Champions League, the gulf is so large that it is mostly unrealistic to expect but as seen in the past, especially with Basel, they can spring surprises. For all the success like Basel have achieved though, there is also the feeling that the teams could be doing better overall. As much as it’s been great to see nine of our teams in these competitions recently, there have been many silly results that have prevented the chance of more successful moments.
For example, Zurich were eliminated in qualifying by Dinamo Minsk in 2015. YB lost out to Qarabag in the same year. Sion were embarrassed by Lithuanian side Suduva in 2016. Basel were ousted out of the UCL by PAOK but more damagingly. they were dumped out of the Europa League this year by Cypriot side Apollon Limassol. St. Gallen were also disappointingly eliminated by Sarpsborg of Norway, although that side went on to have a good run in the competition.
And finally, FC Luzern are a running joke in Switzerland as they have tried and failed to win any European qualifying tie in fourteen attempts, dating back to 1960-61.
Some of these matches, against teams such as Fiorentina, Spartak Moscow, Feyenoord, Genk and this season, Olympiacos, are not winnable games for a side like Luzern but eliminations to St. Johnstone, Osijek, Admira Wacker and a team you will know well, MTK Budapest, are more unacceptable and it ends up being a wasted spot for Switzerland in terms of it’s co-efficient.
So, in general, I think Swiss fans are generally happy, mostly down to Basel and YB and good runs from Sion and Zurich recently but good chances to progress in Europe have been missed due to teams shooting themselves in the foot and that is the most frustrating thing.
How important have Basel been for Swiss football? And how important do you believe they are to the footballing nation?
Extremely. There was one moment that seemed to put Basel onto the map and that was when they eliminated Celtic in Champions League qualifying in 2002. Not many in Britain will have been familiar with FC Basel and this red and blue clad side turned up and beat a strong Celtic side to qualify before causing Liverpool problems, advancing through the first Group phase of the competition before being eliminated in the next round.
Since then, Basel have been a seasoned European team. This season is the first that they haven’t reached beyond the qualifying rounds since the competitions were revamped in the early 2000’s.
Personally, I believe that they’ve helped put Swiss football on the map a little more. In the past, people knew of Xamax, Servette and a few others but in this century, they’ve done more than any other to help increase the stature of our game. There is more interest in the league, I know that just from the variety of people I talk to about it now, there are more teams competing in Europe which is a direct consequence of Basel’s success. Our cup competition grants direct entry into the Europa League which is a surprise to many but again, a result of Basel’s success.
FCB definitely helped pave the way and YB are continuing that for now. There has been a changing of the guard in the domestic league but it remains to be seen if YB can carry the mantle and despite Swiss football doing so well and enjoying a good coefficient level, it is still very precarious and definitely needs teams like YB/FCB to maintain that level.
Do most of the country get behind the Swiss sides playing in Europe or is there a lot of tribalism still apparent?
From my point of view, I believe there is support across the country. I’m a Basel fan but I was delighted to see YB qualify for the Champions League and the same for Zurich and Sion recently in the Europa League. There is domestic rivalry of course but it is so extremely important for Switzerland for their teams to do well and thrive in Europe and that leads to support from most. I see it on Twitter, clubs congratulating each other and fans pleased with the success of opposition clubs.
That said, there are many that won’t support. Not much love lost in Servette-Sion and I know there were a few in Geneva happy to see Sion dumped out by Suduva in Servette’s own stadium. But it’s important to remember, this isn’t England where the coefficient is so high and the majority of teams are successful so it doesn’t hurt the standing of the league, so seeing an Arsenal, Liverpool or whomever knocked out is funny and enjoyed by other fans because it doesn’t have that same importance.
Also worth noting that rivalries aren’t so intense here. Scottish football, for example, is not in a great place on the European stage. It is Celtic that have been the sole success until this season with Rangers reaching the Europa League group stage, but the failures of the other teams for so long and Rangers not being around caused a real dip in the coefficient and as such, Scotland only has one UCL place and two UEL places, all starting very early in the qualifiers. Despite that, you won’t find a Celtic/Rangers fan happy to see the other do well. They’ll be desperate to see the other eliminated even if it hurts the coefficient more. It isn’t like that in Switzerland, the rivalries aren’t so deep and so intense and everything else (coefficient, league stature etc) is just more important.
Is there much money in Swiss football at the moment?
In a word, no. Swiss football has really struggled in that regard. Servette and Neuchatel Xamax, two historic clubs, two clubs that you’d have at the top table of Swiss clubs have endured a difficult ten years or so. Both fell into financial difficulty, both fell down the leagues. Neuchatel have to merge with another side further down the leagues, FC Serrieres and are now known as ‘Neuchatel Xamax FCS’ while Servette haven’t played Super League football since 2013. A far cry from playing Real Madrid in the glory days.
To illustrate how precarious finances can be in Swiss football, Servette have been relegated three times (2005, 2012 and 2015) due to financial irregularities. In 2015, they finished second in the second tier but were denied a license as they had accumulated debts of around five million and faced bankruptcy for the second time in ten years. They were demoted to the third tier but they were saved financially and had their debts paid off and are on course to return to the Super League now.
Grasshoppers are another example. The most successful side in Swiss football history but they are at threat of relegation and if they are relegated, that is a real worry for the club, not just from a sporting point of view but also financially. There are some worries that relegation could ruin them and for one of the institutions in Swiss football, that would be devastating for the rich history of the Swiss game but also, of course, for GCZ.
Even a club like Thun, enjoying success at the top end of the Super League, have had to fund-raise before to maintain a positive cash-flow and things are even worse in the Challenge League. Every relegation except one (13/14) in the last seven seasons in that league have been decided for financial reasons rather than events on the pitch. This season is looking like the first time since then that a team will be relegated for sporting reasons.
To add to this, FC Wil were another club on the cusp of falling down the leagues in the same vein as Le Mont, Biel and Locarno for financial reasons. Their Turkish investors, who had taken over in 2015 with the aim of building a new stadium and promises of a return to the top league, ended their involvement abruptly in February 2017 and Wil were close to going out of business as we know them. Thankfully, they were saved and seem to be on a steady footing now but it was touch and go in that regard that another club may disappear. Dicing with bankruptcy is not something you can afford to do in Switzerland.
Basel/YB are the only sides that are financially well off but both are frugal. YB have the means but don’t spend heavily while Basel have always been known to invest in unknown players/youth and sell them on for huge profit. Fabian Schar, Yann Sommer, Xherdan Shaqiri, Mohamed Elyounoussi, Mohamed Salah, Mo Elneny, Granit Xhaka, Breel Embolo, Valentin Stocker… the list goes on.
Do Swiss fans get excited by the Europa League?
I think for the most part, yes, although I’m not sure it’s enough to get people into the stadium. I’ll break it down a little.
FC Thun first appeared in the Europa League in the 11/12 season, they didn’t get out of the qualification phase but their matches vs. Stoke, Vllaznia and Palermo all drew over 7,000 fans to the Stockhorn Arena (holds around 10k), an attendance that was only bettered three times in the league that season with two visits of Basel and one of YB for the derby which drew 9,000.
Their second appearance in 13/14 was less interesting. They drew crowds of 5,000+ for the qualifiers, 8k for the final qualifier and in the Group Stage, their first match saw 7k inside the stadium which they won. They lost their next five matches in the group and by the final game against Genk, it had dropped to 5k. So, poor results directly affected attendance so the “thrill” of a smaller team like Thun just being in the competition isn’t enough.
For full disclosure, their most recent campaign in 15/16 saw lower attendances across qualifying with 6k their highest – perhaps, the novelty of the tournament had worn off although it would be interesting to see attendances if they qualify this year, which they are on course to do, given it’s been four years since they last played in it.
St. Gallen embraced it for the most part in their return to European competition in the 13/14 season, they drew crowds in the Group Stage that grew by stature of opponent really. 12k vs. Kuban, 15k vs. Swansea and 16k vs. Valencia in a 19,000 capacity stadium. FCSG are usually well supported and were this season too, attendances in the league didn’t drop under 10k either.
FC Zurich drew crowds of 10,000 for their group matches in the 11/12 Europa League with Lazio and Sporting. Their first appearance in the groups since 07/08 but then when Vaslui visited in their final home match, it dropped to 6k. They played Bayern in the Champions League qualifiers that same season and sold out the stadium.
Fast forward to this year in the competition, they drew 12k vs. Leverkusen but the attendance was more modest for the visits of Ludogorets and Apollon with under 8k for both. Napoli in the knockout round though sold out the stadium.
YB, until this year, were mostly a Europa League team too and it followed the same pattern. Only the big teams really brought them out. Napoli in the 15/16 group stage and Everton in the knockout rounds. Give them the Champions League though and it’s a different story. To further illustrate my point about form having a direct correlation with attendance, YB lost 2-0 in the 16/17 Champions League qualifier away to Shakhtar and drew only 9k for the second leg, which they won after an amazing comeback. Their next match vs. Gladbach then drew 30,000 and this year, they sold out every one of their group games in the UCL.
Basel are so used to the Champions League but don’t always sell out their stadium unless it is against the big teams, Arsenal from a few years ago being an example. Their last group stage run in the Europa in 15/16 saw crowds of 20k+ which is impressive overall but still leaves the stadium a good portion of St. Jakob-Park empty.
The 12/13 season in the Europa is another example. They drew some poor crowds through the run, even just 8k against Dnipro in the first knockout round and 15k with the visit of Zenit after that. Tottenham in the QF and Chelsea in the SF saw the stadium sold out though.
So, to conclude, I think there is a certain excitement. For teams like Basel, the Champions League is the holy grail and being in the Europa League is not the scenario they want but if you have the perfect storm, like in 12/13, then the excitement hits fever pitch. That run to the semi-final is historic and the city and country was buzzing during that whole period.
If the team is successful, the crowds will come out in decent numbers but a poor couple of matches and qualification hopes gone early and attendances drop. The stature of opponent is also huge. Premier League teams draw in the fans 100%. I’m not sure why, perhaps it is just because it is, like in so many countries, the football on TV everywhere when growing up in Switzerland. Manchester United, Arsenal etc all bring a larger appeal than other European teams for Swiss football fans.
For the smaller teams, Zurich struggle to sell out the Letzigrund ever as it is so vast, they really need a big team to come like Bayern and they don’t get that in the Europa League. They’ve also been in it often recently and I guess that doesn’t help attendances.
For teams like Thun, it is almost a novelty and they’re always the underdog. It is similar with St. Gallen, if they were in with a chance of qualification, the tadium would probably be packed by the final matchday but by the time that comes around, the team is usually eliminated and it is a “whats the point” scenario for these clubs.
The Champions League is a different animal, again, Swiss fans and European fans buy into it. If St. Gallen qualified for the Group Stage next season, it would be guaranteed that the stadium would be sold out. They may reach the Europa League groups next season, but it is unlikely to see a sold-out stadium, just a boost in general attendance instead.
Success. Stature. Form all need to be right for fans to really care about the Europa League. The deeper teams go in competition, the more excitement builds.
How do you think the Europa League 2 will affect Swiss EL performances and what has been the reaction to the formation of the competition in Switzerland?
If it becomes a thing, I’m not convinced it will greatly help Swiss teams. I’m not entirely sure of the format/layout that it will have and which places in the league will be designated for that competition, but given teams like Luzern have struggled against perceived weaker sides and would be facing sides of a similar stature like that, I’m not convinced they could do so well.
That said, it all depends on the quality. I assume Basel, Zurich and others depending on their finishing position would be in the original Europa League. I would really have to have an idea of the standard of opposition to assume just how it may go.
Honestly, I haven’t seen much reaction. It has sort of flown under the radar. I think in a lot of countries, it will help and definitely, the games should be exciting with similar-level sides but until it is something more concrete, I don’t think it is a serious consideration or concern for many in Switzerland at the moment.
What would you like to see UEFA do to level the playing field more for small European sides?
It is a difficult one as I see it from both sides. I hate that the Champions League is a closed shop now and yes, you still get sides like YB and AEK qualifying for the first time ever but it follows much the same pattern with a surprise story here and there. The same teams in the knockout rounds and the same match-ups for the most part. It works for UEFA, they rake in the money and the casual fan, the worldwide audience in places like the US and China want to see Man Utd, Barcelona, Real Madrid and all those teams all the time. Other smaller teams don’t hold that appeal.
I see people suggest making it a “Champions League” and having every league winner in there, but that wouldn’t work for me either. The champions of San Marino are never going to be able to do anything and the San Marino champions playing the Andorran league winners, no matter how you spin it, does not appeal to anyone but the hipster. I’d watch it if it was on TV but your average fan on the other side of the world is not interested and it would only hurt revenue and UEFA do not want that.
The seedings and everything else is designed to weed out those teams. UEFA doesn’t want them there. The only solution I can think of that would make it more interesting is to completely abolish the seedings system. I think definitely for the Group Stage. If you end up with a group consisting of PSG, Man Utd, Real Madrid and Juventus then so be it, that is the luck of the draw. Having seeds is counter-productive, the 4th seed rarely ever qualifies but if they weren’t seeded and reached the latter stages twice in a row, suddenly they have a bit more money to continue to progress.
Even in the knockout rounds, in that hypothetical non-seeded group, any two of those four big teams would be eliminated and you also have the chance of, for example, two groups of qualifiers such as: Basel, Porto, Schalke & Sevilla. Then suddenly you could have Basel paired with Schalke and Porto paired with Sevilla in the KO rounds and they have an even greater chance of progressing further whereas in the current system, it is very likely you will run into a big gun immediately. That is the luck of the draw.
I’m aware this idea would essentially negate the coefficient system, but it would be a lot fairer although it isn’t something the big clubs would ever allow to happen, I’m sure.
Interview with Swiss football expert, Craig King
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Author: Tom Mortimer
Tom is the editor at Betting Circle and has been creating online content for over 10 years. Tom mainly writes about sport and gambling, but every now and then also delves into fleshier subjects like politics and psychology. When he was 18 he created HungarianFootball.com and over the last few years he's written on a freelance basis for ESPN, WorldSoccer, Goal.com, among many others.