Soccer City: Basel – where everything works

AS SOON as you arrive in Basel, you’re impressed. The railway station is well organised, it is spacious, it is clean. It is run in a manner you would expect from Swiss train services. Switzerland’s trains are legendary, of course, for being on time and efficient. Exit the SBB Basel station and the city maintains this orderly theme, with trams and buses working in tandem to make Switzerland’s third most populous city very navigable. According to locals, things are not as reliable as they used to be, but compared to countries like the UK, for example, Swiss public transport makes life easier, not more challenging.

From a football perspective, Basel could be mistaken for being a one-club city, but there are others beyond Fussball Club Basel 1893, the 20 times Swiss champions with a very distinctive shirt design. Twelve of those 20 league titles have been won since 2001, but the most recent success was in 2017 after which Young Boys Bern took over as the leading club in Switzerland. Basel had a particularly glorious period between 2007-08 and 2016-17 when they were Swiss Super League champions in nine of 10 years, but this season, Basel are in sixth place, their lowest placing in over 20 years.

Basel’s first league title came in 1952-53 when they benefitted from the goals of one Hügi Josef, who netted 32 times. He was also a pivotal figure in the Swiss-hosted 1954 World Cup and scored six goals. In his career, his strike rate was excellent – 244 in 320 league games for Basel.

Prior to FC Basel’s initial league success, another team from the city, FC Nordstern, finished runners-up in Switzerland in 1924, 1927 and 1928. Founded in 1901, they also reached the Swiss Cup final twice in the 1930s. They last appeared in the Swiss top flight in 1982. Two teams from Basel are in 1.Liga at present, FC Black Stars and FC Concordia who both date back to 1907. BSC Old Boys, who play in the Bachletten quarter at Stadion Schützenmatte, are further down the pyramid but are enjoying a reasonable season in 2022-23. Today, these clubs have been cast into the shadows, with crowds of less than 200. Back in the 1930s, both Nordstern and Concordia were as well supported as FC Basel.

Basel average over 22,000 at St. Jakob Park and only Young Boys Bern with 28,000 draw bigger crowds. Given the population of Basel itself is 175,000 and the municipal area is around 800,000 the club seems well supported. The average gate in the Swiss Super League is currently 13,000 – a record for Swiss domestic football. 

Basel’s stadium, which cost some 220 million Swiss francs to build, was designed by the high profile architects Herzog & de Meuron, whose headquarters are in the city. On first glance, it is an unremarkable ground, hidden behind the façade of a shopping centre that sprawls beneath the stadium, but its simplicity is its appeal. It hosted the UEFA Europa final in 2016 between Sevilla and Liverpool, maintaining UEFA’s nod towards the city that began in the 1960s and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup final between Slovan Bratislava and Barcelona, and continued with further finals in that same competition in 1975, 1979 and 1984. St. Jakob’s Park was Herzog & de Meuron’s first football arena and while it lacks the drama of the Allianz Arena in Munich or Bordeaux’s eye-catching, ode to minimalism, it combines many of the qualities of a classic English-style stadium within a neat, European setting.

Basel have a reputation for being developers of talent and the club that has become a stepping stone for ambitious players. For example, the Swiss World Cup squad 2022 included 12 players who had played for Basel at some stage of their career, among them being Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, Manchester City’s Manuel Akanji and one of Europe’s most tracked young players, Noah Okafor of Red Bull Salzburg.

According to CIES Football Observatory, Basel are among the top 12 clubs that provide talent to the big five European leagues, many of whom move to the Bundesliga. Among the most successful Basel exports was Mohammed Salah of Liverpool, who had a stint with Basel before joining Chelsea in 2013. Other big names to have passed through the club’s dressing room include Ivan Rakitic and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Basel have the youngest squad in the Swiss Super League and also a high level of expatriate players. Their 27-man squad includes 10 different nationalities and 11 Swiss players. Their interim coach, Heiko Vogel, who is also their sporting director, is German. He took over in February 2023 after Alex Frei was sacked after just 30 games having joined the club in the summer from Winterthur. Basel appeared to have a long-term strategy that was focusing on youth, but the results had been below expectations. Frei’s departure was not entirely unexpected as Basel have a reputation in recent years of lacking patience.

While Basel’s league season has been disappointing, they are in the last eight of the Europa Conference League and the semi-finals of the Swiss Cup, where they will face Young Boys on April 4. Their European campaign has been interesting and they have already played 16 games, including four ties against Slovan Bratislava (group and last 16) as well as clashes with CSKA Sofia, Tranzonspor and Brøndby. Their quarter-final opponents are France’s Nice. Basel could yet end the 2022-23 season with some silverware, but it won’t be the Swiss Super League, which seems to be in the bag for YB Bern.

Basel, like many mid-size European clubs, have had their challenges during the pandemic years. In 2020—21, they lost CHF 14.3 million despite earning around CHF 60 million due to expenses reaching CHF 74 million. The club also lost major sponsor Basler Kantonalbank at the end of 2021-22.

As a football destination, there are few more satisfying places to visit than Basel. With its excellent stadium, the city’s location beside the River Rhine and the high quality of all things Swiss (but beware, they come at a price), Basel is a Mitteleuropean go-to city. 

The Game of the People team visited Basel by train via Paris and Strasbourg and stayed at the excellent Hotel Krafft in Basel.

Soccer City: Belgrade – emerging with a football duopoly

BELGRADE has played its part in the development of European football and its major clubs are still names that evoke images of great games and occasions, passionate crowds and highly technical players. The city has hosted one European Cup final, in 1973, and three years later, staged the European Championship final, the famous game that brought the world the iconic “Panenka penalty”.

But like most countries outside today’s leading markets, Serbian football has had to find its place in the modern football world. In addition, and most importantly, the former Yugoslavian states, reshaped by war and politics, have had more critical problems to deal with than football.

Belgrade is a curious city, a heady mixture of Soviet-influenced relics, all grey and occasionally brutalist, and elaborate art-nouveau buildings such as the famous Hotel Moskva. It has been at the heart of European history and has had to endure 40 overhauls in the aftermath of destruction. Such a turbulent back story has undoubtedly moulded the psyche of Belgrade’s population. There may another less intimidating period of positive change when Serbia joins the European Union, which should be in 2024.

The city is awash with football clubs, but to most people, there are only two: Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade) and their fierce rivals, FK Partizan. The popular belief is that the clash between these clubs, the eternal derby, is the most heated and violent in European football. A recent book by James Montague, 1312: Among the Ultras, tells the story in forensic detail.

It goes beyond a battle between two football teams, it is also about different political and social characteristics. Red Star, for so long seen as a symbol of “Serbdom” are said to be popular with 48% of Serbia’s population. As war raged in the former Yugoslavia, Red Star, who were European champions, were hit by the UN sanctions on Serbia in 1991, which effectively brought to an end Red Star’s golden age. The Sunday Times wrote: “It is the one sanction that really hurts…for the man in the street, Red Star’s disintegration has been more devastating than any other effect of the UN sanctions.”

The origins of Red Star and Partizan can be traced back to the years after the second world war when Red Star were formed by the United Alliance of Anti-Fascist Youth and Partizan came out of the Yugoslav People’s Army. You can take it back further in examining the rivalry between BSK Belgrade and SK Jugoslavijain. “People who were in the army were Partizan fans, but all others from Serbia were cheering for Red Star,” said Serbian journalist Darko Nikolic in conversation with the BBC. Amid the creation of Red Star and Partizan, BSK’s facilities were taken over by a newly-created club, Metelac, who had Tito as their honorary president. The club went on to be acquired by the secret police and became OFK Beograd.

Partizan’s stadium is in Autokomanda, an urban area around 1.5 kilometres from the centre of Belgrade. It was formerly known as the Stadion JNA after the Yugoslavian Army. At its peak, the stadium held 50,000 but today’s all-seater limit is less than 30,000. Red Star’s Rajko Mitic Stadium, also known as the Marakana, is just one kilometre away from Partizan’s arena. Red Star’s attendances, averaging 19,000 are far in excess of the Serbian Super League’s 2,300 (2021-22), while Partizan’s average is less than 4,000.

These two clubs have dominated Serbian football since their formation including the old Yugoslavian league. In fact, they have won 60 league titles between them and since the Serbian Super League was formed in 2006, they have won eight titles apiece. Nobody else has had a look in. In Belgrade’s shops and kiosks, it is very clear Red Star and Partizan (both who have played in European Cup finals) make the most noise, although like every country outside the “big five”, Belgrade’s football appetite is compromised by elite clubs ifrom Spain, Germany and Italy, as well as the Premier League.

While central Belgrade now resembles many central European cities and towns, there is still evidence of the conflict that tore apart the Balkans not so long ago. There are pock-marked buildings and sites that were once populated by offices or government offices, and in the Kalemegdan Fortress, there are military vehicles and weapons to remind the visitor of the past. Away from that, Belgrade is rapidly becoming a trendy place to visit, with a vibrant nightlife and a growing penchant for the type of café society seen in places like Vienna, Prague and Budapest. In a decade’s time, the city will undoubtedly look every different.

It is unlikely Serbian football’s dynamic will ever change – the Belgrade duo will never see a major challenge to their supremacy and no other Belgrade club will interrupt the rivalry of the eternal derby. The current Serbian Super League line-up includes three other sides from Belgrade and its environs: Čukaricki, FK Kolubara and Voždovac. Of these, Voždovac have been among the most durable of clubs. They play at the Shopping Center Stadium, as it is known, which is literally a ground on top of a huge shopping mall. They are not well supported and struggle to get more than 500 people at their home games. Čukaricki, who date back to 1926, are also short of spectators.

Outside the top level, some Belgrade teams owe their formation to industrial backing. IMT, for example, were fomed by agricultural machinery manufacturers in 1953 and are known as Traktoristi (The tractorists), while RFK Grafičar Beograd were the club of the printing industry. They are now a feeder to Red Star. Then there is Teleoptik, from the optical profession and, unsurprisingly, known as the opticians!

One name from the early days of European club competition, OFK, now play in the third tier of Serbian football, a far cry from the years when they reached the last four of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup and Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup. They play in the deteriorating Omladinski Stadion in the Karaburma municipality, which held almost 20,000 people but has a much reduced capacity at present. They are nicknamed the Romantics, but there’s nothing very misty-eyed about their current situation in the Serbian League, Belgrade section.

Serbia is a football country that faces continual challenges in a continually polarising European landscape. The European Super League project, should it go ahead, may inflict mortal damage on countries like Serbia and clubs like Red Star and Partizan, who have contributed to the rich heritage of the continent’s football, may find themselves forgotten. That must not be allowed to happen, for the sake of Serbia, Belgrade and the clubs concerned.