The quaint city of Basel. It’s pleasant in the day and quiet most nights. And once a week the residents take the night off from being mild mannered to get behind a football team with an unparalleled ferocity. The Old Town creaks when FC Basel take to the field at St Jakob-Park. You can buy a team scarf, a hat, a shirt almost anywhere, they’re even given away as Happy Meal toys – if you buy enough of them. In this corner of Switzerland there is only one team.
Unaware of the circumstances of the night before, when I woke up and walked its streets the morning of December 14th 2015, the mood was undeniably muted.
The RotBlau had been knocked out of the fourth round of the Swiss Cup by their emerging bogey team Sion FC on penalties and the local and national press were reeling. Scenes of footballing anguish took up the back pages on the newsstands. I didn’t need a phrasebook to decipher that the locals chatting to the vendor were unhappy about it. FC Basel were pulling away in the Super League over the winter period and playing some attractive football to boot, so the state of shock was palpable. This wasn’t a local team in good form with some disappointed fans; FC Basel are the best team you’re not following right now. Regulars in the Europa & Champions League since 2000, Basel are the most successful Swiss team in recent history. This summer they sealed a historic seventh consecutive league title, converting their long-held lead into silverware. It was their tenth in 13 years.
There were humble beginnings for the modern day giants. In 1893 a newspaper advertisement was placed in the Basler national newspaper by the club’s future president, Roland Geldner, requesting anyone wishing to represent the city in a football team meet at the local restaurant Schuhmachern-Zunft. Only 11 men arrived next Wednesday night but that was all they needed to pick their iconic red and blue strip and begin training, and there was a lot of training. After entering the first incarnation of the now Super League in 1898, they took 35 years to lift the Swiss Cup for the first time, and another 20 beyond that before taking their first league title in 1953.
Besides their current spell in the sun, Basel had a successful period in the late 1960’s and 1970’s under manager Helmut Benthaus, picking up seven more top flight trophies and two more Swiss Cups, taking their first and only double of the era in 1967. Although they were stating a case for their place in the country’s footballing annuls, the standard of the Swiss domestic league and international team was nothing to be envied; the competitions they had qualified for routinely ended early. They were merely a big fish in a small pond.
The 1980’s brought an abrupt end to cele- brations for Basel, who then fell from grace, bouncing from flight to flight in the football pyramid. Benthaus’ trophyladen 17-year tenure had not been matched by any of the carousel of managers going through the club. This was building to a climax in 1997 after four men had been run out of the technical area in a year, including a New Year’s Eve sacking. Someone special had to come and help this club to flourish and, as luck would have it, there was a Swiss man on his way out of Tottenham Hotspur who could do just that.
Poor Christian Gross had come under some of the most intense and unjust fire from the English tabloid press that any manager has ever faced. Struggling to speak English rather than use a translator, his nine month stay was plagued by visa issues for his coaching staff and players failing to backtrack. Losing 6-1 in his first game at White Hart Lane to Chelsea did little to endear him to fans. Fired at the end of the season, he next went to Basel and hoped to emulate his previous successes with Grasshoppers: a tidy two league titles and a Swiss Cup in just four years. A windfall of financial backing and Basel’s longest stay in the Swiss top flight for a decade turned out to be the foundations Gross needed to herald an age of domestic dominance. His legacy goes on in his absence after a decidedly brutal dismissal by the club after failing to win either domestic trophy in the 2008/09 season.
Not only did this herald a new age of victory for the men in red and blue (Since 2001 there have only been two seasons where Basel have not won either the Super League or Swiss Cup) but the financial investment meant that St JakobStadium became the new St Jakob-Park, complete with a much improved youth academy which has produced some of the country’s best players: ex-captain Alexander Frei, namesake and internationally capped Fabian Frei, Xherdan Shaqiri (of Stoke and that Euros goal), Ivan Rakitic, the Xhaka brothers Taulant and Granit (the latter recently signed by Arsenal), and emerging talent Breel Embolo.
Embolo was a target for Manchester United this summer before Schalke beat them to him, and the Swiss national is an aggressive, talented forward aged only 19. He’s made appearances for the Basel senior team for the last three years and is a walking metaphor for their ethos and fate thus far. Embolo is often played on the wing and more often than not takes a ball to the box himself rather than seek out a cross. He’s gifted technically, fearless, but needs to refine his skills on a bigger stage.
It’s the same for his old club. They play as physically demanding a game as Gross instilled in them 15 years ago. Their individual skill and team mentality is what has made them champions at home. You could be left wondering why their form in European competitions has been generally lacklustre by comparison and it is because their pond is just too small. Switzerland’s domestic league doesn’t present the same challenges as other European countries. Basel have achieved everything they can in their backyard but don’t have the same opportunity to just up sticks and move to Germany like their old marksman, no matter how close to the border they are. To stop being fodder in the knockout rounds of Europe, they’ve seemingly got to elevate the standard of the Swiss Super League. How they do that is anyone’s guess.