How did we get here?
Switzerland may not be widely considered as the most glamorous of footballing nations. Still, throughout the past, it has always been blessed with a very competitive league structure where multiple teams consistently show their capability of winning the top-flight.
It was not uncommon in the past where there could be five or six different champions in a row. Even more incredible was that this spread of talent continued all the way into the mid-’90s, despite the ever-increasing wealth gap between clubs. Switzerland today currently has five different clubs who have earned at least one ‘Meister Stern’ for their efforts. This refers to the tradition of adding a star to the badge of each club, for every ten league titles won. Similar distribution of successes has not been seen in any of the top footballing nations in Europe; England (3), France (2), Spain (3), Germany (1) and the Netherlands (4).
This may be surprising for people considering Basel’s utter dominance over the Swiss League in the past 15 years. The reason Basel are where they are is almost entirely down to the perfect timing of their success. Their stadium, St Jakob Park, was finished and opened at the end of the 2000/01 season, after three long years of construction. The next season, Basel would celebrate that opening by winning their first league title in 22 years, coinciding nicely with the revamped UEFA Champions League, and the vast increase in participation prize money awarded to those competing.
Basel continued to build on successes, and their wealth grew exponentially each season where they took part in European football. This complete capitalisation on the timing of their success, to consolidate the club as the biggest football club in Switzerland, left a sour taste in the mouth of the most successful club in Switzerland, Grasshopper Zürich who are currently languishing in the 2nd division.
In 2003, the Swiss football league rebranded to the Swiss Super League, and Basel have won 11 League titles since, second only to Bayern Munich (12), in Europe’s higher echelons during the same period.
However, YB (Young Boys Bern), Switzerland’s nearly men, famous for choking in the late stages of the season, were growing evermore inpatient. Over ten years they would end up finishing in 2nd place six times, twice of which by less than six points, coming tantalisingly close to their first league title in more than 30 years. In the 2017/18 season, they would finally break their curse and end the Basel chokehold on the trophy, celebrating a league championship for the first time in 32 years. In the 2018/19 season, YB won their second league title in succession, humbling Basel with a 20 point lead. Swiss football fans were elated. What seemed like fantasy a meagre three years ago was now becoming a reality.
A worthy rival for Basel, with YB’s triumph proving The Swiss League was returning to a competitive league overall, highlighted by the fact that last season, 3rd to 6th place all finished with a points tally of 46, with three points separated 3rd and 8th. There was a buzz of excitement around for the upcoming 2020 season, one that had been absent for many years.
The 2019/20 season
The 2019/20 season kicked off at the traditionally early date of July 20th 2019, with more or less all results going exactly as expected. The first few games would see YB and Basel pull ahead of the pack looking fresh and formidable. By the ninth matchday, Basel were cruising with 22 points, three ahead of 2nd place YB, and showing fantastic grit and determination to reclaim their spot at the pinnacle of Swiss football.
Football fans around the country were feasting upon this much-needed rivalry, relishing the reinvigorated atmosphere around each match day. Then something truly extraordinary happened.
FC St Gallen would go ahead and do what nobody with a solid grip on reality would have ever thought possible. St Gallen, a beautiful historical city in the northeast of the country, and home to Switzerland’s oldest football club. It was founded in 1879, putting it up there with some of the oldest currently active football clubs in the world. St. Gallen are one of the historically least successful Swiss football clubs, winning only two league titles in 1904 and 2000, never finishing above third place outside of the title wins.
In recent times, they are perceived in Switzerland as a symbol of perfect mediocrity, and honestly wouldn’t be far off of eligibility for squatters’ rights for the 5th and 6th position in the Swiss Super League table. For a club which just ten years ago was on the brink of financial collapse, and saved only through the private investment of local business owners, this was a label they felt privileged to have.
Peter Zeidler’s young men went into the season with eyes firmly held on that 5th place prize. A 30-man squad with an average age of 23 and built with longevity in mind. One would be forgiven for seeing this season as a transitional year for Zeidler to continue moulding his team to his playstyle and ideas. Zeidler’s philosophy was developed under the six-year tutelage of Ralf Rangnick both at Hoffenheim and FC Liefering, an Austrian feeder club formed and developed in connection with RB Salzburg.
Almost all of the first team players arrived in St Gallen or were promoted to the first team no earlier than the summer of 2018, quite an extraordinary overhaul of players in such a short timeframe. You wouldn’t think it seeing them play, but most of these players have been playing with each other for much less than a full season.
Zeidler’s squad started the season as expected, floating around the bottom half of the table before stabilising. By matchday six, after a comfortable 3-2 win against a ten-man FC Lugano, they sat snug in their 5th place like someone making themselves comfortable for a long haul flight. Directly after came another comfortable win against Servette, then another one, and another. On matchday ten, St Gallen pulled out a shock home draw against league leaders Basel in which they were very unfortunate not to take all three points. Not only were St Gallen going toe to toe with the table leaders, they were consistently hammering almost every other team in the league.
Between matchday six and matchday 21, St Gallen recorded two losses, one draw, and a staggering 13 wins which fired them straight out of the comfort of 5th place, past Sion into third, then past Basel into second, before coasting past YB into first place; quite remarkable.
The reaction from the media and fans alike has been one of half elation and half confusion. Nobody can quite understand how St Gallen have managed to pull it off, building a team that looks genuinely capable of winning a league that has been dominated by only two clubs for more than a decade, in almost less than a calendar year. Not quite up there with Leicesters heroics in 2016 in terms of surprises, but certainly not a million miles off. In any case, they have the entire Swiss fanbase behind them, outside of Basel and YB fans, and are directly responsible for the current excited atmosphere surrounding Swiss football.
The Swiss Support
This collective support was particularly highlighted by what seemed like a state of national emergency after matchday 23, the final game before the corona break. After a fantastic 90 minutes of end-to-end football and the score sitting deservedly at 2-2, Jordi Quintilla of St. Gallen whipped in a 91st-minute corner for midfielder Lukas Görtler to head home, sending the home crowd into blind hysterics.
St. Gallen beating the champions of Switzerland halfway through the season to pull clear of them at the top of the table; it was like a fantasy. YB hit back hard for an equaliser. Their hard work and championship mentality paid off with the last kick of the game, drawing a careless handball from left-back Miro Muheim, in the 96th minute to give YB a chance from the spot to take the draw, and to stay level on points with St. Gallen.
YB Striker Guillaume Hoarau, stepped up to take the final kick of the game and bring the St. Gallen fans crashing back down to reality. It was a poor penalty. Weak and at a comfortable height for St. Gallen’s Zigi to reach it, which he did, parrying it clear from the goal. Hoarau’s head fell into his shirt as the score remained St Gallen 3-2 Young Boys. The St. Gallen celebrations are short-lived, however, and the euphoria instantly transforms to fury as the players surround the referee as he walks towards Zigi brandishing a yellow card, and pointing once more to the penalty spot.
The referee had received a message from VAR that Zigi’s foot had been millimetres off his goal line; foul, yellow card, retake. Hoarau’s second effort is much better, a clean strike into the same corner with Zigi opting to dive left.
It would finish 3-3 amidst outrage in the stadium, scandal in the media, and above all anger in the fan forums where furious comments were posted almost daily for the next four months as the football world dealt with the fallout of COVID-19.
On Friday, June 19th, Young Boys hosted FC Zürich at the Stade de Suisse to kick off the return of the Super Liga. They would run out 3-2 winners thanks to two late goals from league top scorer Jean-Pierre Nsame putting the pressure back onto their league rivals. The return of football was welcomed, but while on the surface things it seemed to be working, there was an underlying worry that the situation wasn’t being handled well. As the matchdays continued and results started to get more and more strange, it started to become apparent that what should have been a dream season, and a proud moment for Switzerland to show the world how exciting their football league is, began to appear very problematic.
What could have been a once in a generation upset in the Swiss football league was going to be cruelly snatched away by an unforeseeable act of God. Throughout the coronavirus outbreak and since the restart, the gradual worsening of the virus situation had slowly chipped the integrity of the competition away. There was a complete loss of home advantage at an uneven moment in the fixture list, fitness-related injuries to important players, unfair scheduling of games giving irregular rest times, and problems extending contracts to cover the late end of the season. These issues certainly influenced the latter stages of the competition, but as it stood, opinions were united on this being for the greater good of the league. Any asterisks retrospectively applied this season would be accepted as a necessary compromise to what was really an existential crisis.
On Friday July 10th, Mirlind Kryeziu, of FC Zürich, tested positive for COVID-19. Zürich’s weekend match against Sion was postponed allowing the league authorities to decide how to proceed. Over the weekend, the entire Zürich squad were tested, resulting in six players and three staff members showing positive results. The whole team was ordered into a ten-day quarantine.
Heinrich Schifferle, president of the league, has said multiple times that there are two conditions that he will not tolerate; a cancelled season and a season continuing beyond the UEFA Europa League registration deadline of August 3rd. On Monday July 17th, the Super League ruled to continue the season as it was. FC Zürich finished their quarantine period with minimal preparation, getting steamrolled by YB in the process.
It’s difficult to comprehend quite how the league authorities have actively sanctioned such a massive injustice with such clear and direct ramifications on the title race. A brave effort from the kids from Zürich wasn’t enough to keep them from falling to an expected 4-0 defeat in Basel. This brought 3rd place Basel, three tainted points closer to the table leaders.
As things currently stand, the league will push ahead and finish the season. Despite a further positive test in the Swiss club, Xamax, there are no plans to cancel the season. If the situation were to continue to worsen, it seems unthinkable that Schifferle wouldn’t reconsider.
Criticism has been loud. The Swiss Super League was one of the most relaxed footballing associations concerning the implementation of protective measures. No masks required for players on the bench. Keeping the two-metre distance from each other was recommended rather than required. There were even fans in stadiums as early as the end of June. If this wasn’t bad enough, after the outbreak last week in Zürich, players have spoken out about the lack of regular testing, with some even claiming they have never been tested since the restart! For this to have happened in a professional sports industry worth billions is mind-boggling, especially within the context that Switzerland itself was hit pretty severely at the beginning by COVID-19; a depressing state of affairs in comparison to the success story of their northerly neighbours in the Bundesliga.
The Swiss Super Liga 2019/20 season that promised so much, the season that gave the Swiss people an underdog hero to believe in, is hanging by its last thread. It seems very likely that the final fixture of YB vs St. Gallen could be a title decider assuming the league is still running by then. Time will tell.
Who is at fault? Whether it is UEFA to blame for their non-negotiable 3rd August UEFA Cup deadline, the Super League authorities’ incompetence in underestimating the virus, or maybe just sheer bad luck. Ultimately, it is us, the fans, who have been robbed of the full enjoyment of what could have been the greatest footballing achievement in Switzerland’s history.
Written by: Sam Scott – @sscott39
Graphics by: Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_