Credit Suisse

wsc303Instead of trying to mimic their richer neighbours, small clubs in Switzerland can succeed by serving their local communities, says Paul Knott

The normally sober francophone Swiss newspaper Le Temps was recently moved to ask whether there is any point in continuing with domestic professional football. The editorial in question was partly a howl of anguish at a calamitous season for the clubs in the paper’s catchment area. But it also raised a valid question about how clubs in the smaller European countries can remain viable when bigger outfits from elsewhere offer greater glamour by exploiting their status as “the most indebted clubs in the world”.

Le Temps‘ angst came after a grim year for clubs in the Swiss Romande region. The season had started well, with four francophone sides in the ten-club Super League, more than for several years. The biggest of them, 17-time champions Servette, of Geneva, were back in the top flight for the first time since going bankrupt six years ago. They were within hours of going out of business again in February, before a change of ownership secured the club’s security for another month.

Neuchâtel Xamax were not so lucky. The club folded in December due to mismanagement by the owner, Bulat Chagaev, who had less money than he had promised and even less respect for the law. Another historically strong but recently bankrupt club, Lausanne Sport, appear to be the region’s only well-run side. Their frugal approach has come at the cost of their competitiveness on the field. Lausanne have only been saved from certain relegation by Neuchâtel’s demise and the 36-point deduction given to the region’s other top-flight club, FC Sion, for their transfer irregularities.

Switzerland’s problems are not unique and provide a relevant case study for other parts of Europe. The main point of Le Temps was that, even though the clubs are only competing in a modest domestic league, they are struggling to survive. They have potential fanbases of between 6,000 (Neuchâtel) and 18,000 (Servette), and should be viable in a league of this size. Part of their problem is that their competition for support from fans and sponsors is not just local.

These local clubs have to compete with other European clubs that are artificially pumped up with massive debts that never seem to present any threat to their existence. This model is fuelling unsustainable costs down the food chain. In Switzerland, the relative crumbs picked up from the Champions League banquet by FC Basel enable them to run an annual budget more than twice the size of any of their domestic rivals. Their spending makes it almost impossible for other clubs to keep up.

Few Swiss fans believe that UEFA’s impending financial fair play rules will solve the problem. Perhaps the only solution in countries like Switzerland is to forget trying to replicate how larger clubs act. FC Winterthur, in the Swiss second division, provide an engaging model of how to leave the rat-race. Although they are never likely to trouble the giants of Europe, Winterthur almost went bust more than once trying to spend their way to mid-ranking top-flight status.

After their last near-death experience almost a decade ago, the club reinvented itself. As club president Andreas Moesli, a former journalist and lifelong fan, explains, FC Winterthur became a “social asset for the city”. This has meant building a strong junior set-up and the emphasis is on creating a way for local youngsters and families to participate in the club. The youth team is not simply a talent-production line. The club reduced ticket prices for young supporters, with free entry for under-12s and others, such as local junior football coaches.

The atmosphere around the club has been transformed. Winterthur draws upon the characteristics of “Red Winti”, a small post-industrial city with a large immigrant population and a strong tradition of alternative culture and radical politics. The distinctive, relaxed and non-corporate character of Winterthur is on show inside the ground. Along the side terrace, fans congregate around stand-up beer tables. In the main home end, the handpainted signs gently mock the toytown ultras found at Switzerland’s bigger clubs by demarcating a “Bier Kurve” for grown-ups and a “Sirop (squash) Kurve” for kids, complete with free drums to bash and milk crates to stand on.

The fans are a mix of rockers of various ages, who move on from the early Saturday evening games to the local music clubs, and mainstream townspeople, including the bourgeoisie in the main stand who still provide a decent proportion of the club’s funds. The social-asset model adopted by Winterthur has not led to the club giving up on first-team success on the field, as proven by this season’s ongoing cup run and late-blooming promotion challenge. But the club has given up on risking death in their attempts to progress up the leagues. In the process it has created an attractive template for other clubs to adopt.

From WSC 303 May 2012