Last weekend I decided to take advantage of the half-term break to venture on a maiden trip to Switzerland. Although there was a professional element to the trip, namely to immerse myself in French and German (OK: Schwiizerdütsch!) loosely linked to CPD, there was little doubting that I would grasp the opportunity to attend a couple of Super League fixtures.
After taking an extremely comfortable SBB train to the capital of Bern, I checked into the hotel and then made my way by tram to the Stade de Suisse for Young Boys against St. Gallen. The visitors from the east have been revitalised by the high-profile signing of Tranquillo Barnetta who has brought his experience to bear. Once fellow acquisition Sejad Salihovic is up and running, few will relish taking on die Espen.
YB went into the game having seen their long unbeaten run ended the week before by Markus Babbel’s Luzern. Three points at home were a must if they were to regain momentum and keep perennial champions Basel honest. Spirits were high following the decision of leading scorer Guillaume Hoarau to pen a new deal that should keep him in the Swiss capital until he hangs up his boots. Despite having embraced the quieter life compared to his homeland, he feels he cannot be considered truly Bernese until he has mastered the local tongue.
While I cannot attest to his prowess in German, I can testify to having witnessed in the flesh his aerial dominance and finishing ability which have seen him enjoy an Indian summer to a career that had floundered after early promise. He opened the scoring with a penalty and played a major part in substitute Roger Assalé’s equaliser. In between, St. Gallen scored twice and at one point threatened to take all three points. As against Luzern, YB collapsed alarmingly and shipped two goals in quick succession with individual errors to blame. Things would have been worse for the hosts were it not for Yann Mvogo’s inspired form between the sticks.
Although the 13186 crowd was well short of a full house on a bitterly cold Bernese night which required a warm coat and a blanket or two, the stadium impressed me with its many TV screens, friendly atmosphere, helpful staff and open plan with fans able to watch the game behind the seats whilst standing having a beer. The major downside is having to endure smoking inside a stadium which should not be the case in 2017. This was indeed a bigger annoyance than having to pay CHF8 for a chicken burger and CHF18 for a meal in McDonald’s in Geneva!
Five minutes after the referee brought the curtain down on a thoroughly enjoyable game, I was on a warm bus back to the Hauptbahnhof – a mere seven-minute journey. There was time to watch the analysis back on local television before a good night’s sleep to ensure I was refreshed for my trip north to Basel.
The Swiss have followed the German example of including your transport to and from the game which is just as well for I was caught on the hop by the CHF2 surcharge on bottles and cans outside St. Jakob Park. I don’t think the sales assistant was too impressed by my ignorance. I learned that the CHF2 would be refunded upon returning the bottle with a token – a worthy idea although the surcharge does seem rather excessive to me!
Basel’s stadium, like the Stade de Suisse, is set inside a shopping complex but with its three tiers and greater capacity is much more imposing. One was inevitably drawn to thoughts of how it would send shivers down the spine on European nights that are sadly absent this spring. I made my way down to the area behind the goal and spoke to a steward for 25 minutes. We reminisced about Basel’s past stars and exploits and he suggested I visit Zürich the next time I return. During our conversation, I turned to my right and looked up to see a small army of hardcore Lausanne fans who had made the long trip. Whilst not wanting to offend my hosts, my background does lend itself to having a soft-spot for the Francophone teams in the competition.
I opined that I expected Lausanne to score, which the steward unsurprisingly disagreed with! They had found the net 35 times in 20 games – an impressive number for a side second from bottom. Clearly, their frailties lay elsewhere and would be cruelly exposed as the afternoon wore on.
The match began in surreal fashion as sharpshooter Seydou Doumbia missed the impossible from barely a yard out before Lausanne’s star man Benjamin Kololli silenced the 23,000 RotBlau fans. Doumbia atoned for his earlier aberration by heading home an equaliser. Business as usual then – or not! Fabio Celestini had told the press before the game that he would not yield to pressure and adopt a more cautious approach. Foolhardy? Naïve? Few if anyone would have uttered such words at 1-3 as a magnificent Samuele Campo free kick and Kololli’s Panenka raised prospects of a shock win. Basel had won 14 of the last 15 between the two sides.
Marc Janko was thrown into the mix and the very arrival of the domineering Austrian striker panicked Lausanne’s shaky backline. Doumbia equalised in fortunate circumstances, substitute defender Manuel Akanji exposed some woeful set-piece organisation to put Basel ahead for the first time and Janko sealed the win with a goal his cameo deserved. It was a thrilling match although nonetheless tinged with a sense of inevitability that comes with Basel’s overwhelming strength compared to every other side.
Basel are 17 points clear of YB at the top and the SFL are reduced to talking up the heated contest to stay up involving the bottom half of the league. Whilst it is easy to lament the lop-sided nature of the Swiss title race, I nevertheless left Switzerland having been engrossed in two enthralling games in well-appointed stadia with passionate fans. In spite of the financial advantages at Basel’s disposal from sponsorship and regular Champions League money, they also possess a winning mentality and inner steel lacking in their competitors – this should not cost a franc.
To appreciate any competition is to look beyond its pinnacle. Money is of great influence in football but shrewd management and good scouting can go some way to closing the gap on the field. A trip around the haunting white elephant of Servette’s Stade de Genève is a grim reminder of how incompetence can destroy the potential of a once proud, historic force in Swiss football. Nonetheless, there are many great stories to be found in the Super League if one delves beneath the surface. I, for one, will be captivated in the remaining two or so months of the league campaign. If time and money permit, I’d love to experience it myself not from the comfort of my apartment but from the cutting edge of the terraces.