Basel: Triumph and myth intertwine

FC Basel's Alexander Frei celebrates his first goal for his new team during his Swiss super league g

"For the purpose of founding a football club, all friends of the sport are invited to gather for a meeting next Wednesday evening at 8.15 pm in the upper room of the Shoemakers’ Guild."

It all started with this small ad placed in the Basler Nationalzeitung of 12 November 1893. Three days later, eleven readers responded to the call and founded the club which now rates as one of the leading lights in Swiss football, FC Basel.

The club, known to fans and foes alike simply as 'FCB', share third place in the all-time Swiss top flight roll of honour with FC Zurich, both on 12 titles apiece. Servette Geneva (17) and Grasshopper Club Zurich (27) have claimed the championship more often, but the St. Jakob Park outfit have won the league four times in the last decade and also turned in a clutch of memorable performances at the highest level of the European game, making them the giants of the present-day scene in the Alpine confederation.

The RotBlau's (Red and Blue’s) stellar ascent is most closely associated with the name of head coach Christian Gross, who left Basel in summer 2009 after ten trophy-laden years at the helm, and Gisela Oeri, the first-ever female president of a Swiss professional club. Another famous personality associated with Basel is that of star German coach and current Switzerland boss Ottmar Hitzfeld, who often reminisces happily on his time as a player with FCB from 1971 to 1975.

Last but not least, an air of myth and legend surrounds the club due to an oft-related but never definitively confirmed tale, whereby the Swiss supplied a good dose of the inspiration behind global giants Barcelona. surveys FC Basel’s engrossing and colourful history.

Birth of an institution

Members of a rowing club, a clutch of academics and a sports journalist, a gentleman who rates as one of the first of his kind on the Swiss media scene and who translated the rules of football out of the original English, answered the newspaper advertisement and founded FC Basel on 15 November 1893. Some six months passed before the fledgling club travelled for their first game abroad. A hard lesson lay in wait as FCB fell 8-0 in Strasbourg, but the trip to the neighbouring Alsace region rapidly became a traditional fixture on the Basel calendar.

By 1900, FCB were Switzerland’s second biggest club after Grasshoppers with a total of 111 members, and they provided their first national team player four years later. In 1912, Basel hired Englishman Percy Humphreys as their first-ever head coach, and an Austrian and a Hungarian became the first foreigners in red and blue in 1919. It took FCB until 1953 to win a maiden national championship, but the club had spectacularly hit the headlines some 28 years previously: Basel entertained the Uruguayan stars from Nacional Montevideo, and although they lost 5-2, the game is remembered for the match ball being thrown into the arena from a plane.

Making of a legend

A German player was destined to usher in the most successful era of them all at FCB. In 1965, Helmut Benthaus sensationally switched to Basel from FC Koln, Germany’s biggest and best club at the time, linking up with his fellow-countryman Jurgen Sundermann and Swiss star Karl Odermatt to form a legendary midfield threesome. The Benthaus era included the German import coaching the club, first as player coach and later as the outright boss. It was a truly golden period which brought Basel the league title seven times and the cup on three occasions.

A series of highlights and a dramatic fall from grace were to follow. In 1973-74, Basel signed Peru superstar Teofilo Cubillas and marched to the quarter-finals of the European Cup. Six years later, Benthaus steered FCB to his seventh and the club’s eighth domestic title. But in 1988, Basel were relegated from the Swiss top flight. The club spent their centenary year in the second division, before finally regaining their place at the top table in 1994.

The present

In the summer of 1999, Gross arrived in Basel from Tottenham Hotspur. At the same time, Gisela Oeri, the wife of a billionaire, decided to invest in the club. Success soon returned to St. Jakob Park. In 2001, FCB became the first Swiss outfit to make the final of the UEFA Intertoto Cup, celebrating their first domestic championship in 22 years the following season. Basel then hit the headlines again by making it to the UEFA Champions League second group phase, as the last sixteen was structured at the time. Between 2004 and 2008 Gross led his men to the Swiss title on three occasions.

However, last season brought no silverware and FCB parted company with Gross. He is succeeded by former Bayern Munich midfielder Thorsten Fink, who has been tasked with ushering in a new golden era, spearheaded by the return to Basel of Switzerland striker and prodigal son Alexander Frei.

One particular question is almost certain to remain shrouded in mystery for ever. Did Swiss national Hans Gamper, one of Barcelona’s founder members in 1899, “borrow” Basel’s red and blue when the celebrated Catalan outfit settled on their club colours? And what of the traditional leather football which appears prominently on the crest of both sides' jerseys...?

The stadium

Known affectionately as Joggeli in the vernacular, St Jakob Park was already rich in tradition and one of the best-loved stadiums in the Alpine region before its full renovation in 2001. Basel’s home ranks as Switzerland’s biggest football stadium with a capacity of 38,512, and is one of the nation’s two four-star stadiums along with the Stade de Suisse in Berne. Six UEFA EURO 2008 matches took place here. St. Jakob Park houses the city’s biggest mall, the FCB museum, and a retirement home.

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