THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Grasshoppers Zürich have been forced to share the home of their city rivals, which isn’t fit for purpose. Paul Knott fears the worst

One of the great names, literally, of European football is at risk of disappearing. The record 27 times champions of Switzerland, Grasshopper Club Zürich (GCZ), are in debt, struggling on the field and without a home of their own.

 

The root cause of GCZ’s distress is the failure by the bank Credit Suisse and Zürich City Council to complete a project to replace Grasshoppers’ historic Hardturm home with a new ground, as agreed back in 2003. The original plan was for a 30,700-seat stadium with a retail, conference, hotel and office complex attached. In good Swiss fashion, the council’s contribution of land and a loan of CHF 47 million (£31m) was approved in a city-wide referendum that should have made it irrevocable.

The new ground was scheduled to be a venue for Euro 2008 and subsequently to be shared by GCZ and their local rivals FC Zürich (FCZ). In a complicated game of musical stadiums, the clubs initially played in the old Hardturm while the Letzigrund was redeveloped, primarily as an athletics venue. They then moved to Letzigrund to await completion of the new football stadium. Sadly the scheme did not proceed as planned. The Euro 2008 deadline was missed (Letzigrund was used instead) and in 2009 Credit Suisse shamelessly cited the banking crisis to renege on their commitment to the project.

Since then the development has been mired in politicking over the city budget between the ruling socialist/green coalition and their extreme-right opposition. The latest variation to become ensnared in the dispute is for a basic 16,000-seat stadium to be built by 2016. Now even this scaled-down proposal seems unlikely to proceed on schedule, if at all, as the right-wing is blocking funding for the architectural competition needed to get the project underway.

This has left both clubs marooned in the Letzigrund, a stadium recently described by FCZ president Ancillo Canepa as “absolutely useless for football”. Canepa has claimed, plausibly, that FCZ’s home crowds are around 50 per cent lower than they would be in a purpose-built ground. He has also bemoaned the difficulty of generating adequate commercial revenue as, for example, the stadium management takes all of the catering proceeds. According to Canepa, FCZ are currently living off the windfall from last season’s Champions League qualification and will face financial difficulties if these issues are not resolved.

Things are much worse for Grasshoppers. Aside from being stuck in an atmosphere-free barn, their traditionally smaller fanbase suffers the additional ignominy of it being on the site of the ancestral home of their local rivals. Many have deserted and those that remain spend nearly as much time chanting abuse about their surroundings as supporting the team.

Incompetent financial management and alleged fraud in earlier years have left the club without any cushion to withstand the cost of playing at Letzigrund. After declaring that they could not pay the rent for next season and a failed search for another temporary home outside the city, a deal has been done to keep Grasshoppers at Letzigrund for one more season at only 50 per cent of the current rent. This, and ongoing efforts to resolve some of their debt issues, was just enough to enable the club to obtain a licence to play in the top-flight Super League next season, if the inexperienced young team succeeds in avoiding relegation on the field.

Some observers have suggested that Grasshoppers’ apparently desperate search for a new venue up to 31 miles away from Zürich was actually brinkmanship aimed at forcing the city council to reduce the rent, rather than see one of its sporting flagships leave the city. But, even if this was true, the underlying problems have only been postponed and it is difficult to see a sustainable future for Grasshoppers at Letzigrund.

The prospect of their disappearance makes it all the more galling in retrospect that a low-budget proposal by the club in 2008, supported by FC Zürich, to renovate the Hardturm and give it an extra 20 years of life, was ignored by the council. They sent the bulldozers in a few weeks later without deigning to give the clubs a response.

Nostalgia for the idiosyncratic, atmospheric old ground is now at an all-time high, fuelled by Der Hardturm, an excellent photobook by Jens Fischer, and the dispiriting sight of wasteland where the stadium once stood. Former Grasshoppers great Günter Netzer has described the situation as “sad and embarrassing” for a supposed world city such as Zürich. Another popular former player, Roger Wehrli, after contemplating the ruins of Hardturm, said simply that he “could cry every day”.

From WSC 291 May 2011

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