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.