Monday, September 7, 2009

Switzerland. If Yugoslavia was at the top of the vast middle section of European football, the country in the Alps was pretty much at the end of the it – far from the flukes, but far from the top too. Swiss football is one of the oldest in Europe and very early organized in national league format. Yet, the country was never football power and with the switch from ‘mittel Europa’ to the South and West, the Swiss lost whatever authority their game had before the World War II. The sport itself was not especially popular – not too many chose football over alpine skiing, neither playing, nor watching. As a result, the country never produced a big club. Without big club, players never concentrated in one squad, preferring to stay at their local teams. Scattered talent, never in big supply anyway, led to unpredictable championships – nobody dominated the league and, thus, anybody could win. Swiss football was semi-professional, but seemingly the players were well off, for very rarely a Swiss player ventured to other European professional clubs. Abroad, the Swiss were often called ‘the wealthy part-timers’, not exactly a compliment. However, the Swiss imported foreign players – not many and not big names, but there was import further complicating evaluations: clearly, the Swiss system was purely amateur. It was not purely professional either – some players, even foreigners, maintained amateur status when playing for Swiss clubs. Others did not. A typical Swiss clubs at the time often had from one to three local stars, may be a foreigner or two, and the rest was filled with whatever was locally available. It was this structure which provided for relatively equal league, where any club could win, but also could be relegated. So far, the league was somewhat standard format – 14 teams, the bottom two relegated to the Second Division. FC Basel won the title in 1972.
The club was founded in 1893 and interestingly enough gave birth to the mighty FC Barcelona – one of the earliest captains of FC Basel, Joan Gamper, moved to Spain and was one of the founders of the Catalonian club. And not only that: according to one version, the famous blue and red kit of Barcelona copied Basel’s colours, thanks to Gamper. There are other stories for Barcelona’s kit, but whatever the real one is, Basel is some reason for the existence of Barcelona, yet, the ‘mother’ club never achieved the fame of the ‘child’. Basel won its first Swiss title in 1953 and until 1967 it was solitary title. The most successful years of the club started in 1966 and lasted until 1980 – in 1972 Basel added fifth title to the previous from 1953, 1967, 1969, and 1970.

The team was a typical Swiss squad, captained by the best Swiss player at the time Karl Odermatt. What different times! If it was now, the striker-midfielder would have been snatched by some of the big European clubs, but in 1972 there was no chance or even player’s desire to move abroad. Odermatt was probably underappreciated in Europe – he was good, but playing with insignificant teammates in insignificant league, he hardly impressed anybody but the Swiss. The other star player was the goalkeeper Marcel Kunz, also playing in the national team. Rene Hasler, Walter Balmer, and Walter Mundschin were more or less good players and that was that. But an interesting foreigner strengthened the squad: the West German Ottmar Hitzfeld. Yes, the famous contemporary coach! Not much of a player, though, which speaks for the level of Swiss football in the early 1970s. The biggest curiousity, however, is in something else: Hitzfeld wanted to play at the Olympic Games, and that was his reason for moving to the Swiss club. His scheme worked: he became Swiss champion; maintained his amateur status; and played for West Germany in the Summer Olympics 1972, ending with bronze medal. Which at the end only deepens the enigma of Swiss football – was it a professional one, since foreigners were able to stay amateur by Olympic requirements? How were the players, particularly foreign ones, paid, if they were officially amateurs? Switzerland is expensive country – how was Hitzfeld, for instance, paying his daily expenses if he was not professional player? Questions, or no questions, FC Basel were champions, finishing 4 points ahead of FC Zurich and losing only one match during the season. Hitzfeld had to wait many, many years until adding another title to his resume – as a coach.
Thanks to Igor Nedbaylo for the Stadion photos!