Team work doing trick for Swiss minnows

Team work doing trick for Swiss minnows


With only three coaches since the turn of the century, Champions League upstarts FC Basel are a rare case of stability in the turbulent sea of European club football. 

A large contingent of home-grown talent, prudence in the transfer market and boisterous local support makes them the sort of club which UEFA president Michel Platini, who is desperately trying to persuade European clubs to reign in their spending, would like to see more of. 

FC Basel, conquerors of Manchester United in the group stage, pulled off another upset on Wednesday with their 1-0 win over four-times European champions Bayern Munich in the first leg of their round of 16 tie. 

Seven of the players who started the game are Swiss and four of those are young players who have passed through the club's much praised youth divisions. 

They include goalkeeper Yann Sommer (23), who produced an outstanding performance to deny Bayern's forwards. Midfielders Granit Xhaka (19) and Fabian Frei (23) and winger Xherdan Shaqiri (20), one of Swiss football's brightest prospects. 

Twenty-two-year substitute Valentin Stocker, who scored the late winner, is another who has passed through Basel's youth divisions. 

The other Swiss team members, midfield strongman Benjamin Huggel and striking duo Alexander Frei and Marco Streller, are all players in their 30s who began their careers at the club and have returned for a swansong after playing abroad.  Foreign signings are used to plug the holes with Basel again shying away from big names. Instead, the club is happy to be used as a springboard by young players looking for a starting point in Europe before moving to a bigger league. Dominant at home, having won the Swiss league six times since 2002, Basel have long appreciated that they cannot compete with the clubs from the bigger European leagues, although they can give them a hard time.
 "We know who we are and where we want to go," said club president Bernhard Heusler, after Basel were drawn against Bayern in December. 

Heusler said that he is aware the club will eventually have to sell their best young players abroad such as the impish Shaqiri who, in a twist of fate, has already been signed by Bayern and will join the club in June. 

Basel's relative success could serve as a role model for other clubs in leagues outside the big five of England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany, who try to over-reach themselves. 

Salzburg, who have dominated the domestic scene in recent years, have gone down the opposite path since being taken over by the Red Bull drinks company in 2005.  The club have spent lavishly on foreign players, yet failed in their stated ambition of playing in the Champions League having repeatedly fallen in the qualifying rounds.  Fans were alienated when the colours were changed to Red Bull's trademark red and blue, so much so that a splinter group set up a new club who play in the original purple and white and have now reached the third division. 

Basel, on the other hand, regularly pull in crowds of between 20,000 and 30,000 for a home match, no mean feat in a small country where soccer vies with alpine skiing and ice hockey for public interest. However, for away games in places such as Thun and Sion, they can find themselves playing in front of only a few thousand. 

Basel's policy of continuity extends to the coaches. Former Tottenham Hotspur manager Christian Gross laid the foundations for the current side when he was in charge from 1999 to 2009. He was followed by Thorsten Fink and when the former Bayern midfielder left to join Hamburg SV in October, he was replaced by his assistant Heiko Vogel, who, like his predecessor, is another German taking his first steps in senior coaching. 

Having lost his first match in Europe against Benfica, the 36-year-old Vogel has an unbeaten record since then. "My team have unbelievable willpower, a good sense of understanding on the pitch, a sense of who they are and a healthy self-confidence," said Vogel. "There's a great spirit, we are happy at work every day and that makes a difference.