Manuel Veth –
“Of course, it is difficult!” FC Basel head coach Raphaël Wicky exclaims after his sides 1-0 victory in the UEFA Champions League against English giants Manchester United. Basel just had experienced another magical night against one of the giants of European football at the St. Jakob Park and one of the journalists had asked the head coach whether he found it difficult to beat a team like Manchester United.
At the same time, FC Basel have made a bit of a habit of beating the big sides in European competitions. Manchester United have beaten Manchester United before in the group stage eliminating the English club in the 2011-12 season. In 2013 Basel drew Tottenham 2-2 and in the group stage of the 2013-14 season, Basel managed to beat Chelsea both home, and away.
Located in the tri-border area between France, Germany and Switzerland Basel in many ways is an international city. While the train approaches the city smatterings of French, German and Swiss German can be heard on the train. Basel, in fact, is so close to the border that it shares a suburban train network with the French city of Mulhouse and the German city of Freiburg. Finally, one of the city’s two train station is located right at the border to Germany, operated by the Deutsche Bahn and is known in English as Basel-German Station (in Badischer Bahnhof in German).
Despite its international identity, or maybe because, Basel is the most exciting club in Swiss football. The red and blues have won the title on 20 occasions, which ranks them second behind Grasshoppers Zürich, who have won the title on 27 occasions. The Grasshoppers have been without a league title since 2003. In the 14-years Grasshoppers have been waiting to add to their collection Basel had won a fantastic 11 titles and firmly established themselves as the most prominent football brand in Switzerland.
FC Basel – The Pride of an Entire Region
Arriving in Basel one gets a sense why Basel is successful. Although located close to the borders of France and Germany Basler seem to have a strong identity, and their football club plays a strong part in that identity. On the day of the match against Manchester United, many of the official city buildings are flying FC Basel flags, and several of the tram cars of the city’s public transport system are entirely painted in the colours of the club.
During the match, FCB’s fans outsung the few thousand United fans, who made their way to Switzerland. The Joggeli, as the St. Jakobs Park is known in Basel, was indeed a cauldron. It is, therefore, no surprise that the locals become almost mystical when it comes to describing the reasons for FC Basel’s success against top teams from other European countries.
It also does not hurt that the club has been successful. The seat of large pharmaceutical companies like Novartis, Syngenta, Ciba Specialty Chemicals Clariant, Hoffmann-La Roche, Basilea Pharmaceutica and Actelion, which all have their headquarters in the city, Basel is an economic juggernaut in the concert of European cities.
The industry in the city also has benefited the football club and meant that FC Basel became the first Swiss club to generate 100 million Swiss Francs in a financial year. Then last season Basel won their 20th title and their eighth title in a row. At the same time, the club also decided that it was time to take the club in a new direction.
Gigi Oeri and the Foundation of FC Basel Youth Philosophy
Listed as a shareholding company FC Basel have been a club of renewal even since the early 2000s. The foundation of Switzerland’s most successful club was laid by former President Gisela, better known as Gigi, Oeri. Married to Andreas Oeri, one of the inheritors of the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical company, Gigi Oeri became a member of the board in 1999 and then the first female president of a Swiss football club in 2006.
Oeri very much became the financial foundation of FC Basel. Pouring money into the infrastructure of the club Oeri became the main reason for Basel’s success in recent years. Although rich Oeri never gave in on demands to buy world stars and instead believed in long-lasting investments. Only once, in 2004 when she almost purchased Fernando Morientes, did Oeri almost give into the mechanism of football. But Oeri listened to then head coach Christian Gross, who warned her that Morientes would unhinge the wage balance at the club, and stepped away from a transfer.
Instead, Oeri paid off the club’s debt of 9.6 million Swiss Francs invested heavily in Basel’s youth infrastructure by building a new youth campus for 20 million Swiss Francs and continued to do so when she stepped down from her position in 2012—she still spends 2.6 Swiss Francs a season on the club. The investment was well worth it. FC Basel has one of the best youth academies in Europe and recent years has produced talents such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Breel Embolo.
The talents have ensured that Basel have had a steady income from transfers, which has increased the club’s financial standings and also made the club independent from external investors. Hence, when Bernhard Heusler became the club’s president, buying the club for the symbolic price for 1 Swiss Franc, in 2012, he inherited a club on a solid financial footing with a youth infrastructure that almost guaranteed that the red and blues would dominate Swiss club football, which is exactly what they did winning five more titles.
FC Basel and the Urge for Renewal
At the end of the 2017 season, there was a feeling, however, that the club needed a new impulse, a renewal from within, with a new head coach, sporting director and president. Heusler stepped down from his position and sold the club to new president Bernhard Burgener.
Despite Basel winning the title in 2017 Burgener promoted Basel youth coach Raphaël Wicky to the head coach role and hired a new sporting director in Marco Streller. Burgener also brought in former Basel player Alexander Frei and Massimo Ceccaroni.
With a new leadership and a very young team, Basel were willing to undergo a process of renewal while at the same time risking being overtaken by Swiss rival BSC Young Boys. With 16 games gone YB Bern are indeed dominating the Swiss Super League and are first in the standing seven points ahead of Basel. Bern in the past, however, has given up strong standings in the league table and Basel’s sporting leadership is certain that the young team can defend the title once again.
That Basel have the talent was evident in the second half against Manchester United. The game against Red Devils from England highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the young squad. Overawed Basel were outplayed by Manchester United, who should have been up by several goals (read the match report here), but managed to rescue the 0-0 into halftime and then played a fantastic second half at which end Basel led to winning the game thanks to a goal by Michael Lang.
European Success as the Foundation for a Better Future
The result meant that FC Basel are tied on points with CSKA Moscow in the fight for the second spot in Group A. But Basel are in the driver’s seat to reach the next round after they won the head-to-head against CSKA Moscow. Reaching the next round of the Champions League is seen as an important step in the club’s development under the new leadership. The extra games in the Champions League would give Wicky’s much-needed experience that could lead to positive results in the Swiss Super League.
Wicky would use the extra games in the Champions League to give some of his talents playing time. In the first 15 games, Wicky has already played players, who are 21 and younger, in 2319 minutes—almost 400 minutes more than his predecessor Urs Fischer. It is time well spent on young talents such as Dimitri Oberlin, Albian Ajeti, Cedric Itten, Éder Balanta and Mohamed Elyounoussi.
Oberlin in particular looks like the latest top transfer from Basel to one of Europe’s top clubs. The 21-year-old was brought in from Red Bull Salzburg this summer and his speed is reminiscent of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. With just three goals in 12 games, Oberlin is a raw talent, who like his club still needs time to develop to make the next step.
Oberlin could become the face of a club currently in a self-imposed rebuild. But given the talents at Raphaël Wicky’s disposal and the club’s ability to beat the big boys, even during this time of change, Basel can look towards a bright future with further European nights in the St. Jakob Park.
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and social media editor at Bundesliga.com. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.