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.

Chelsea need that new stadium

CHELSEA HAVE experienced everything in the past 19 years; great players, memorable matches, an extraordinary trophy haul that has created an unprecedented period in their 118-year history. A vast amount of money that has been spent to bring success almost on an annual basis, but the most appropriate monument to the club’s elevated status would be a statement stadium, or at least a football ground that can meet the demand for tickets at Stamford Bridge. The capacity of the club’s ancestral home is 40,000 – a modest stadium by modern standards and some distance behind most of Chelsea’s peers.

Stamford Bridge is a neat football arena, certainly more compact than the stadium when it was a huge bowl with a space-age stand, the first phase of Brian Mears’ bold and unfortunately-timed redevelopment plan, on one side and crumbling terraces at both ends. While many Chelsea fans of a certain age hanker for the old days when you needed binoculars to see the action from behind each goal, in the club’s lost decade of 1974 to 1984, when the crowds plummeted, you could almost have died of exposure

When the ground was finally redeveloped under Ken Bates, it made for a more contemporary experience, but it also created a 41,000 all-seater home. The location of the ground means it is now a challenge to make the place bigger, but equally, it is a major hurdle to try and move. Chelsea, if they are to make Stamford Bridge a 60,000 ground, have to find ways to expand their footprint in London SW6.

Real estate and land in London falls into rare earth territory and the cost is astronomical, but Chelsea have bid £ 50 million for a patch of land adjoining the stadium which is currently owned by the Stoll Housing Association. This could be a very controversial transaction if it goes ahead given the shortage of homes in London. However, it will not be a proposition that will be solved in a short time frame. The right people have been consulted, but ultimately, Chelsea are missing out on considerable matchday and commercial revenues while they can only accommodate 40,000 people at their games.

Chelsea’s income from matchdays

 Matchday income£m% of total incomeAverage attendance
Source: Deloitte Football Money League

Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United all have 60,000 home grounds. Stamford Bridge is almost always sold out and obtaining tickets is like seeking the Holy Grail, especially on an ad-hoc basis, hardly surprising given the club is now one of the most popular in the world. Football has never been more popular, or more capable of extracting value from the product, so now it the time to increase crowd capacities.

Stamford Bridge is the ninth biggest ground in the Premier League and the smallest among the “big six” clubs. Manchester United, for example, have 30,000 more fans at each home game, which not only benefits various revenue streams, but also makes the club more inclusive. If the current owners succeed in their ambition of rebuilding Chelsea’s home game, the infrastructure surrounding the club will also need to be adapted for purpose. At present, the route home from Stamford Bridge involves a big percentage of the crowd using Fulham Broadway underground station. The current set-up is an improvement on how it used to be, but a further 20,000 spectators leaving the ground would need to be absorbed into the frenetic procession to and from games. This is a dilemma that faces all London sports grounds, there is almost always a shortage of space in the capital.

Have Chelsea left it too late? Has the club lost the initiative in the great Premier power struggle? Certainly, Chelsea have been overtaken by Manchester City and, temporarily, perhaps, Liverpool. In 19 seasons, they have won 17 major trophies, but only two in the last five years. That could be three in five if they manage to win the Champions league a third time. Furthermore, the ground that was once a fortress  – between 2004-05 and 2009-10 they lost just three home games in the league – is no longer a place to fear. Since 2018-19, Chelsea have lost 16 at home. Their record against the other “big six” teams at home has also deteriorated in that timeframe. Over the past five years, their win rate is less than 25%.

Clearly, the ambition is to restore Chelsea to title contenders judging by the amount of money being spent on new, young talent. Whether it works remains to be seen, but the huge outlays of cash in the summer and in January were a statement of intent by the consortium led by Todd Boehly. Now the focus is switching to the ground project that was abandoned under Roman Abramovich. If the blueprints produced by esteemed architects, Herzog & de Meuron become reality, Chelsea will have a superb, eye-catching home that can ensure supply meets demand. The Basel-based practice designed the Allianz Arena in Munich, the Beijing bird’s nest and the superb and quite beautiful Bordeaux stadium. There could be no finer representation of the modern Chelsea.