Soccer City: Zürich – not just gnomes, after all

THE first thing I was ever told about Zürich was that it was “boring and too tidy”, a place where the time-obsessed Swiss eat high quality chocolate, wind their expensive clocks and watches and stamp their feet when a train is just a minute late. As for football, the city was supposed to be a dead duck, or a dead grasshopper, and was firmly in the shadows of Basel and Bern. Ignoring the cliché and stereotyping, nothing could be further from the truth; Zürich is civilised, moves at the speed of its friendly and comforting trams and has a taste for the good life. And from a football perspective, it has two relatively big clubs, both of whom play at the same arena.

The Swiss can poke fun at themselves and when you arrive at Zürich airport and board a shuttle train to the terminal, you hear cow bells, yodelling and other sounds synonymous with Switzerland. It’s a beautiful country, make no mistake and its cities are attractive and well managed. Needless to say, the trains seem to run on time. And there’s something quite attractive about Swiss football and that’s not just because some of their stadiums have good backdrops.  The Super League had a higher goal-per-game ratio in 2021-22 (3.25) than any of the big European Leagues.

Zürich, to many people around the world, is the capital of Switzerland, which is of course a misconception. It has been the financial centre of the country for decades, with an international banking community that doesn’t command quite the same level of respect it once enjoyed. Swiss banks are trusted no more than any financial institution these days. Talking of trust, FIFA is based in Zürich, another organisation that is widely assumed to be corrupt or at the very least, misguided and incompetent. While Switzerland is not in the same bracket as Europe’s big leagues, there’s no doubt that the nation has played its part in the history of the game.

Zürich

Population415,000
LanguageGerman
First tier clubsFC Zürich, Grasshopper
Second tier clubs 
Third tier clubsYoung Fellows Zürich, FC Zurich II

The two Zürich clubs have experienced mixed fortunes in recent years, both suffering from relegation but also proving they are too big for Swiss Challenge League football. FC Zürich won the Swiss Super League in 2021-22, surprising everyone because in 2020-21, they had only just avoided relegation. They appointed André Breitenreiter as coach in the summer of 2021 and he appeared to work some magic, adopting a very fast and direct style, not dissimilar to the approach taken by Leicester City when they won the Premier League in 2016. Zürich benefitted from the goals of Gambian striker Assan Ceesay, who netted 20 goals before leaving at the end of the season to join Lecce on a free transfer.

Zürich won the Swiss Super League by a margin of 14 points, with favourites Basel and Young Boys trailing behind. These two clubs have dominated Swiss football since 2009, with Basel winning seven years in a row up to 2017 and since then, Young Boys winning four consecutive titles. These clubs are also the strongest from an economic perspective, with operating revenues in 2020 of around CHF 30 million. FC Zürich’s income in 2020 was about 75% of that figure.

The pandemic left its mark on Swiss clubs because they traditionally made 35% of their revenues from matchday – there are no huge broadcasting revenues in the Super League. The Swiss government did provide some support during the crisis, but it was revealed earlier this year that some clubs received more than they were entitled to and they have been ordered to pay back CHF 4 million to the federal authorities.

Zürich enjoyed an increase in attendances at the Letzigrund with an average of 10,575 at their home games. The league average was 11,400, a pretty constant figure over recent years. But since winning the title, everything seems to have gone wrong for FCZ. Brietenreiter left to join Hoffenheim and Zürich began 2022-23 disastrously. His replacement, former Austria coach Franco Foda, has also gone.

Zürich are still without a win and are currently bottom of the league. They failed to get past the second qualifying round in the UEFA Champions League and are competing in the UEFA Europa League group stage, where they are up against Arsenal, PSV Eindhoven and Bodø/Glimt. They’ve lost all three of their group games, the most recent a 5-1 humbling at home to PSV. Goals seem to be the problem since Ceesay departed, but the feel-good factor that accompanied Zurich’s success in 2021-22 has all but evaporated.

Grasshopper, who share the Letzigrund after leaving the Hardturm in 2007, are faring better than their co-tenants and are sitting in mid-table. The idea was for a new Zürich stadium to be built that would house both clubs, but the project didn’t receive the necessary approval and has long since stalled. The Letzigrund itself is an attractive ground with an unusual appearance. The original ground dated back to 1925 but a new stadium was constructed for the 2008 European Championships.

Because of their name, Grasshopper are of the most well-known clubs in Europe. Founded by a Blackburn Rovers supporting biology student, Tom Griffiths, in 1886, Grasshopper suffered relegation for the first time in their history in 2019, but they returned a year later to the Swiss Super League. The last time they were champions was in 2003, but they won the Swiss Cup in 2013.

There is fierce rivalry between the two Zürich clubs for what is the only major derby in Swiss football. The two clubs have met this season at the city-owned Letzigrund with an attendance of almost 17,000 seeing a 1-1 draw. The derby games are characterised by tifos, pyrotechnics and the usual chanting of insults and jibes!

There is another Zürich football institution, SC Young Fellows Juventus, a rather quaint name for a club that plays at the tiny Utogrund. This club is the result of a merger in 1992 between Young Fellows Zürich (founded 1903) and Società Calcistica Italiana Juventus Zurigo (1922). Unsurprisingly, the club plays in black and white stripes. They are in the third tier of Swiss football, the Promotion League and so far in 2022-23, they’re not doing so well.

Football in Switzerland may not seem as frenetic as other countries, but when FCZ were relegated in 2016, there were riots among fans, so nobody should dismiss Swiss football as lacking passion or enthusiasm. Furthermore, Zürich is one of the most powerful cities in the world and regularly features at the top of surveys on the quality of life. It’s certainly one of the most pleasant places I’ve watched a football match.

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.