League Focus: Switzerland – Zurich back on top

SWITZERLAND doesn’t get too much exposure for its domestic football. The country has a reasonable record in recent years at national level and has qualified for Qatar 2022, but most of the publicity around football usually focuses on UEFA and FIFA, who both have their headquarters in Switzerland.

The Swiss Super League has a reputation for being a goal-happy competition, but in 2020-21, the goal-per-game rate went below three and was less than neighbouring leagues such as the Bundesliga, Austrian Bundesliga and Serie A.

This season, FC Zurich are leading the way in the Super League and already have a seven point margin over second-placed Basel. Champions for the last four years, Young Boys Bern, look in danger of losing their crown and are in third position. Zurich have not been champions since 2008-09, but they won the Swiss Cup in 2018, 2016 and 2014. In 2016, they were relegated from the Super League but came back iat the first attempt in 2017.  

Zurich may have only lost two games in the league, but tellingly, the defeats include a 4-0 humbling by Young Boys and a 3-1 loss in Basel. They have scored 43 goals in 18 games, with Gambia international Assan Ceesay the leading scorer with 10. Ceesay has played for his country in the Africa Cup of Nations that is currently in progress in Cameroon.

Basel may not be the driving force in Switzerland at present, but they have the league’s leading scorer in 23 year-old Arthur Cabral, who has netted an impressive 14 goals in 18 games. Basel had a good UEFA Conference League group stage, winning four of six games and qualifying for the last 16.

Young Boys, managed by David Wagner, crashed out of the UEFA Champions League in a group that included Manchester United, Villareal and Atalanta. They won just one game, a 2-1 victory against United. Unfortunately, they finished bottom and failed to gain a consolation place in the Europa League.

In economic terms, Young Boys and Basel are significantly stronger than the rest of the Super League, but like all clubs, they have suffered from losses during the covid-19 pandemic. In 2019-20, matchday revenues collapsed in Switzerland and the overall impact on earnings was quite marked – Young Boys suffered a 38% drop to CHF 36.2 million, while Basel’s income was down by 46% to CHF 27.2 million. Zurich’s situation was even worse, a decline of 65% to CHF 8.8 million.

Swiss football has a greater reliance on matchday earnings than many major leagues across Europe, so the pandemic has been especially harsh for the clubs. According to Deloitte, the Swiss Super League (in 2020) generated around € 229 million and matchday generally accounts for 35%, but in 2019-20, matchday dropped by 57%. Young Boys, for example, saw their matchday earnings fall by 41%. Deloitte also noted that in 2021 that only Basel (54%) and St. Gallen (41%) had healthy equity ratios.

The Swiss Super League’s peers include Austria, Scotland and, at a push, Denmark. Their revenues are comparable, although the Danish Superliga generates around € 70 million less than its Swiss counterpart. Austria pays less of its income on wages, 57% versus 70%, but the TV deal is substantially better than Switzerland’s.

The pandemic has obviously had a negative impact on the transfer market. Since 2019-20, Basel have been the biggest spenders, paying out € 22.5 million and recouping € 41.9 million. In 2021-22, Young Boys top the list so far at € 2.5 million of expenditure. Basel are among the top 10 clubs for providing talent to the big five leagues in Europe, notably the German Bundesliga.

Will Zurich hold on to their lead in the second half of the season? They have added to their squad in the form of Estonia international Karol Mets from CSKA Sofia, a deal that cost Zurich € 200,000. Basel, meanwhile, have signed Noah Katterback from Köln and Albian Hajdari of Juventus, both on loan. Young Boys have also been busy, securing the services of Anthony Racioppi from Dijon and Nicholas Ammeter from Arau (loan).

The Swiss Super League resumes after the winter break on January 29.

Stand and deliver – the return of terraces

UNLESS something dramatic happens, it does look as though football in Britain will soon welcome back terracing of some sort at the highest level of the game. For a generation of fans, terracing has never really been an option, unless they watched lower league or non-league football. As an example, my youngest son, aged 26, seeing the swaying hordes behind the goals in a 1970s game on TV, couldn’t believe the authorities took such huge risks in cramming people on concrete steps with just a few barriers in place. We have, to our cost, learned.

That’s not to say that standing at matches isn’t commonplace, for fans seem to reject their seats for the entire 90 minutes at some grounds, ignoring any appeal to sit down and threats of ejection. In most cases, the stewards have given up and allow it to continue. But this tells us there is a segment of the average football crowd that really does want to stand up.

In theory, the reintroduction of standing on an official basis should reduce ticket prices, although it is unlikely to change much as there will be costs involved in recalibrating stadium seating plans. In the longer run, one can only hope clubs try and introduce a more acceptable pricing structure.

This is important because the majority of people who will warm to the return of terraces will be the younger members of the footballing community. Like many fans, I graduated from crumbling terraces and moved into the stands when I was no longer prepared to tolerate the hustle and bustle, and when I could afford the admission. Today, I might occasionally stand at my local club and I do enjoy the age-old ritual of leaning against a rusting barrier, craning my neck here and there to catch a glimpse of the action. 

It’s clear the terracing is where the real fermentation of the football spirit takes place. You make more noise if you stand up and being seated makes people more reserved. If you want further proof of that, just consider a music gig where artists often encourage the crowd to get out of their seat. 

We should not be too surprised that since we went all-seater, crowd noise has declined enormously. The other factor is to do with demographics – the football audience has become older and that’s because many younger folk cannot afford the tickets. Quite simply, 60-somethings don’t generally chant and sing songs at football matches. If you want a feral, passionate vibe at a game, make it more user-friendly for youngsters.

A few years back, I attended the Zurich derby, FC Zurich v Grasshopper. It was a Friday night, FIFA was in meltdown over the other side of town with people being escorted out of hotels with sheets on their heads to preserve anonymity and Zurich was quite sleepy. Inside the ground, one end of the stadium was heaving, banners, flares and loads of singing. The crowd was essentially young and standing. Meanwhile, in the seating area, you could hear a pin drop. This was Zurich, a conservative, well-heeled city and here we were, looking at one of the most passionate crowds I had ever witnessed. Standing and liberated.

Will we feel comfortable using terracing again? With covid-19 in its post-vaccination stage, how will we react to being shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of people in a confined area? From the spectator’s point of view, what is more hygienic – sitting closely together or standing side-by-side? There’s an argument there’s little difference, but at the same time, there’s a strong case to suggest that being on a terrace (not the sardine-like experience that epitomised swaying crowds of the 1960s and early 1970s) gives more scope for movement. In theory you can give yourself as much room as you want if the crowd capacity is kept to a modest level. In a seat, you have very little control, other than to get up and leave.

Some people long for the days when a sea of humanity would provide the soundtrack of matchday. Today, so many crowds lack humour, volume and passion – like Britain’s political landscape, there are no rivals or opponents these days, just “enemies”, so often vitriol is the order of the day. In the past, giant “ends” like the Kop and the Holte would be admired and envied, not necessarily the construction that housed them, but the size, sound and support that came from them. 

I believe a carefully-controlled terrace, in terms of numbers, could provide a solution for football spectating in the post-virus climate. It won’t be to everyone’s taste – ultimately, it may not be to mine – but it would be sheer stupidity to restart football and not allow people the room to breathe their own air as we come to terms with a more vulnerable world. I’m heading to Cambridge United to try their terrace out. OK, it’s not the yellow wall of Dortmund or the old Stretford End, but it will be a new experience. I might not want to stand up at every game, but I would probably like the option.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine