Calling in on…FC Zurich – never mind FIFA, here’s the only Swiss derby

There was never a better time to visit Zurich. The world was watching as FIFA’s heady mixture of cronyism and corruption unfolded in the newspapers, online and across our TV screens. As a result, flights to “the big small town” were packed, hotels brimming and journalists and photographers jockeying for position to see a king being deposed. Or so they thought.

Elsewhere in Zurich, the final day of the Swiss Super League was being played out as Sepp Blatter was being voted back in office. Zurich itself was playing host to the only true football derby in Switzerland – FC Zurich v Grasshoppers. It’s not exactly the Merseyside derby, the old firm clash or the North London bun-fight, but it’s [relatively] big news in “Downtown Switzerland”, as it is often known.

Zurich has been named among the cities with the best quality of life in the world, and it’s easy to see why. It is clean, efficient, has no small amount of character and, in my book, if a place has trams, it’s alright with me. But to quote former Labour party leader, Ed Milliband, “is it expensive?” – “hell, yes.”

Both FCZ and Grasshoppers share the Letzigrund Stadium. Although this stadium was originally built in 1925, the current version dates back to 2007. It played host to two games in the 2008 European Championship, attracting 30,000-plus crowds.

P1070341It’s not an unattractive site and is aesthetically-pleasing on the eye. Needless to say, it has the traditional continental European running track around it, but this doesn’t seem to deter from the experience. Strangely, three sides of the ground do not have a back to the stands, which could mean that the Letzigrund is a drafty place when the weather’s bad. Before meeting their neighbours who, traditionally, were from the other side of the railway tracks, FC Zurich had forgotten how to win at home. The Swiss Super League is only a 10-team affair, so the clubs play each other four times. In the first half of the season, Zurich had won five of their nine home games, including a 1-0 victory against Grasshoppers. But in the second half, Zurich had not won a league game at home, although they did win the derby against Grasshoppers 2-0 in March. Despite this lack-lustre performance at the Letzigrund, Zurich’s gates – at more than 10,000 – were up on 2013-14.

So their league form in 2014-15 has relied on a strong away record with only runaway champions Basel better on the road. Before the finale against Grasshoppers, Zurich were in fourth place, with their rivals languishing in eighth.

Something’s happening in the canton

On route to our hotel, which was literally opposite the stadium, our taxi took a short cut to avoid road works. We zipped through a very quiet street and came across a battalion of police slipping into their black body armour and boots. “Football tonight….maybe trouble,” said our cab driver. It reminded me of a scene from the film Empire of the Sun, where the hero of the story, a young lad by the name of Jim (played by Christian Bale) innocently climbs over a hill to retrieve a toy plane and stumbles on a brigade of Chinese soldiers getting ready for combat. There was a slight air of tension, and an hour later, as we dined on rosti and tapas, we could hear fire crackers in the distance, the occasional throaty chant and police sirens puncturing the air. “There’s something going on,” said our waiter at the Ramada Hotel. These things are all relative, and somehow I just didn’t expect to be witnessing a scene from Football Factory or Green Street – “This is Zurich, for Christ’s sake, and we’re in the land of the cuckoo clock and cowbell.” Forgive the stereotyping.

Inside the stadium, it was low key, but the crowd on the Sud Curve, the terrace that backs onto the main drag, Badenerstrasse, was building up. At the opposite end, Grasshoppers fans were starting to find their voice. While Zurich had banners, long and wordy, the visitors were just Bedecked in scarves. By the time kick-off came, the Sud Curve was packed and being orchestrated by a man with a megaphone.

Action all the way

P1070371As the teams came out, the Zurich fans really came alive, flags waving furiously. The Grasshoppers fans adopted a mid-1970s scarves aloft approach. Both sets would soon have something to cheer about as the teams served up great entertainment.

Grasshoppers took the lead after just three minutes, Matteo Fedele surging forward, playing the ball into the path of Frenchmen Yoric Ravet and he positively smashed the ball past Zurich goalkeeper Yanick Brecher with his right foot.

In the 14th minute, Zurich equalised. Philippe Koch crossed and Grasshoppers’ custodian, Vaso Vasic (a Serb), failed to clear, only for Christian Schneuwly to rifle home the loose ball.

This prompted the first pyrotechnic display of flares, smoke bombs and other seemingly banned items that flashed before us on the big screen. Every time the fans started igniting their flares, the public address system reminded them that they were banned. The police that we saw getting ready for action seemed to be nowhere. There was no trouble, but how the hell did they get these items into the stadium?

It didn’t take long – two minutes – for the visitors to regain the lead and it was another outstanding finish – this time from Brazilian Caio, who sent a 25-yard effort into the net.

Again, Zurich responded (22 minutes), Tunisian Chermiti volleying past Vasic from close range after a corner was nodded on. Cue more flares and the [ignored] public warning.

Six minutes later, FC Zurich took the lead for the first time, Chiumento sliding the ball forward to Albanian striker Armando Siduku and he shot low into the corner. More fireworks, more admonishments.

There was still time in the first half for another Grasshoppers goal and it was Ravet who sent a left-foot spectacular past Brecher. It was virtually the last kick of the half. 3-3. Great stuff.

After such entertainment, it was no surprise that the second half failed to keep pace. There was just one more goal, scored in the 73rd minute by the home side, Chermiti stroking the ball past Vasic after his compatriot, Yassine Chikhaoui had burst down the flank. And that was it – 4-3.

That just left a feeling of “auld lang syne” about the place as the Swiss Super League came to an end. Back in the hotel, talk of the FIFA Congress dominated. FC Zurich may have won the match across the road, but the most startling – and surprising – victory had been earlier in the day…

The Zurich derby has generally swung in FC Zurich’s favour over the past five years. In the past 20 meetings in the league, FCZ have won 17, Grasshoppers two and there has been one draw. The 4-3 victory gave FC Zurich third place in the table in 2014-15.

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