It’s not all about the Chocolate

So a weekend in Switzerland is not many people’s idea of fun, but come early June 2008, up to 500,000 football fans will descend on its four major cities to watch Euro 2008. With typical Swiss efficiency, they are winning the competition with Austria, the other host nation, as to who will have their stadiums ready first. With just 13 months to go, Switzerland has 3 of its 4 stadiums ready and useable, whilst Austria is struggling along with just Vienna. Now seemed like as good as time as any to pay a visit to the land of cow bells to see what standards they had set in redeveloping the stadiums. The plan was not rocket science – 2 games at the 2 of the stadiums in question in 2 days – but how easy would it dsci3457.jpgbe in moving around the country?

First thing to notice on landing at Basel Mulhouse – turn right and not left. For some strange reason you are able to enter France via the left hand side of the baggage reclaim hall at the airport – and once you’ve gone through that door there is no turning back – you are stuck in no-man’s land – like a real life Terminal Man – or something like that! A regular bus whisks you to the town centre…Tip number two – don’t plan on a few hours sightseeing in Basel – there is not much to do there. Syre – have a walk around the old town, gaze up at the Munster, and down at the River Rhein but after 5 minutes the lure of the 6 – yes 6 Irish bars in Steinentorstrasse will take hold…I tried to kid myself that I had seen everything – and I am sure I did miss something but within 2 hours I was in Mr Pickwick’s with a Carling in one hand, a bacon roll in the other ready for the lunchtime Manchester derby….And what better way to follow that that the West Ham v Bolton game and another couple of Carling’s and Bacon sandwiches….But soon enough it was time to head down to the stadium. The transport network is oh so efficient as you have come to expect – ticket machines that have English instructions, clear indicator signs as to when your tram is coming, and even “football specials” meant that within 15 minutes of the half-time whistle going at Upton Park and leaving the pub I was at the St Jakob Stadium. I did try my usual Press accreditation blag but I am sorry to say that a rejection here took my success rate down to 66% this season…However I had booked a ticket on the internet and soon had it in my possession. Tip 3 – do not carry any car parking tickets in your wallet – they look the same as a match ticket and putting one of the former in the bar code readers caused a mind panic with the gate staff….The good news is that you cant take guns into the stadium – it is “expressly forbidden”, however I saw no other restrictions on flame throwers and the like….With building work still going on around the stadium, and a heavy rain shower overhead, trying to avoid the construction site puddles was a tad difficult….Once inside the stadium I was impressed by the atmosphere in the concourses – in fact it appears the only time the fans were roused into song was in this area…

The stadium is a weird affair – to end stands that could have been cut and pasted from many an English ground, a three tier stand that looked like a role model for Goodison Park and then the “main stand” with its double decker Executive boxes – think of that crap stand at Luton that runs along the side of the pitch and then imagine it sitting on top of a stand at Pride Park and you get the picture. The interesting aspect of this is that none of the boxes had balconies – meaning that the “Corporate Bung” customers next summer will have their atmosphere in a vacuum – a great way to spend €1,000 a head – listening to the game via a TV set.

The “hardcore” Basel fans located in the east stand tried to make a noise, and did unfurl a couple of banners describing how they would like to get their hands on the away fans from the power house that is FC Aarau…Yes that team that is know throughout the continent as the team with a regular hardcore away following that has its own Smart Car to drive them to games…If I was an Aarau player I would be ashamed to clap when Laurel and Hardy (well one looked fat and the other was thin) greeted the entrance of the teams. Anyway I digress – Basel were 2nd in the league, 6 points behind FC Zurich…With only a handful of games left it was essential to win. With their Blue and Red stadium, Blue and Red “halved” shirts and FCB logos everywhere imitation was obviously the finest form of flattery. Obviously inspired by one of the most clueless coaches ever to appear in England – step forward travel card holding Christian Gross – the team started with a bang and soon had Aarau on the ropes. After 6 minutes a free kick was expertly curled around the wall and into the top corner…1-0…But despite pressing and pressing, and the news filtering through that FC Zurich were scoring goals for fun away from home, FCB couldn’t do anything to score more – the referee (a spitting image of Tim Henman) did try to help, awarding a staggering 37 free kicks to FCB in the 2nd half but Clueless and Witless up front could not score….94 minutes gone, FCB throw everyone forward, winger falls over and with a sigh of relief the team get a penalty..2-0 is a win after all but not convincing….with trams lined up outside, and departing once full (take note please Wembley – its called crowd-flow management) I found myself in the surburb called Muttzer where my hotel “only a short walk from the stadium” was – yeah right ‘cos a 15 minute tram ride = a 5 minute walk….My hotel – now I do like a bit of peace and quiet – especially when I am away but this was taking it to the extreme..Imagine Amersham High Street – antique shops, small cafes and you will get the picture of Muttzer – a great quiet place but not quite what I had in mind – however a bed is a bed and it was clean and who needs the Adult channel when you can watch the Masters Snooker on a 10inch portable with German commentary eh – although since when have they had women referees???

Skip forward 11 hours and I am refreshed and on a train for the hour journey south-ish to Berne. The great thing about Swiss trains is that they are clean, run on time and link the major cities – the downside is that they are not cheap – £40 for a return for this journey….Picturesque countryside – Yes but I could have bought a DVD and watched that for £10!

I’d heard good things about Berne, although I was worried in walking through Basel at 10am on a Sunday about how quiet it had been – surely Switzerland has more to offer on a Sunday….A quick detour into the Tourist Information centre at Berne Station, more for a better look at what can only be described as a Michelle Marsh’s twin sister and I left with a smile on my face and the infamous “Berne tourist guide” – a do it yourself map that guides you past all of the main sites in less than 2 hours….And I saw them all….Historic buildings lined with collenades, 19th century churches, soft porn photos shoots and bear pits….Yes the latter two are correct – Obviously this must be a common thing in Berne…There, quite openly were two girls with very little on cavorting in a fountain with two professional photographers capturing the event for publication – as well as a group of “tourists” all of whom appeared to be speaking English!!! As for the bear pit, well follow the old town main street – Kampgasse down over the absurdly pretty old town bridge and river and there it is – outside the tourist information centre – a bear pit with two fully grown brown bears wandering around!

The old town is fantastic though, I would imagine a Friday night out here would be memorable as almost every cellar space had been converted into a bar….unfortunately Sunday lunchtime drinking wasn’t that popular and the doors had remained firmly shut. Nevertheless I did stumble on a Rosti restaurant – that simply served Switzerland’s contribution to global cuisine, and very little else – over 30 different varieties…Fully refreshed it was time to head north to the best named stadium in Europe – the Wankdorf…Obviously slightly embarrassed my the attention the stadium will get in 2008, they have officially renamed it as the “Stade de Suisse” a nice new name for Switzerland’s national stadium. Glittering in the early summer sunshine it looked more like a fancy Exhibition hall or a shopping centre – oh hang on we are in Switzerland – of course it is a shopping centre!!! They certainly like their “multi-use” tags here….Managed to push my media accreditation success rate back up over 70% and took my place behind my press desk in the media centre….Now obviously with an average attendance close to 14,000 the club needed to come up with ideas to boost attendances…Whoever thought of Ladies Day should get some credit….however, having the stewards dressed in black tie did not endear them to the ladies…likewise the official stadium presenter looking as comfortable as Jordan at a Mensa meeting did not add to the event…Nor did the idea of giving every lady a single yellow rose…A nice idea but perhaps they should have chosen ones without the thorns on – St Johns (or as we are in Switzerland, St Bernards!) were certainly busy with their tweezers all afternoon.

The stadium is smart – cleaner and more pristine that FC Basel’s and certainly uniform – a simple 2 tier square structure. Views were good, and fortunately we saw a game that was equally impressive. Laying 3rd (Young Boys Berne – do you think they do a good line in T-Shirts that say I Love Young Boys) and 4th (St Gallen) with a UEFA Cup spot at stake meant some attacking football from the first whistle…Now the stadium is one of the trial sites for the new generation of artificial grass – apparently in the winter they flood it and when it freezes they use it for Ice Hockey matches – and it played really well…Swiss Uber-star Hakan Yakin with his Valentino-esque pencil moustache and lanky hair stood out as someone who before long would be clattered – and clattered he was time and time again. The good thing is that when he did retaliate by first kicking a St Gallen player, then pushing him in the face, the referee decided he deserved a mild talking to…2 minutes later a appeal for a penalty from a St Gallen player was met with a red card – Sir Alex, Arsene and Jose should take a look over here before moaning about the quality of referees in our backyard. In the end a 1-1 was a fair result, with the St Gallen fans seemingly happy to set of a flare or two which of course being Switzerland, and on a Sunday was met with shhh’s from all around.

So what did I learn about Switzerland – transport good, stadiums good (certainly functional – nothing eye catching like Euro 2004 or last summer’s world cup), food good, beer good, access to soft porn for free good and not a single sign of a cuckoo clock which cant be bad….

About the St Jakob Stadium
When it was announced that the joint bid from Austria and Switzerland had been successful in hosting Euro 2008, the city council in Basel wasted no time in drawing up plans to provide a stadium that could form a legacy in terms of future European matches. With less than a year to go to the tournament, you can see that the effort (and money) has paid off. Sim
ilar in nature to the stadiums at Berne and Geneva, the outer shell of the stadium is hidden on one side by a shopping centre, but inside the stadium is very much as you would expect from the Swiss – compact, neat and efficient. It is very British in design – four stands close to the pitch and excellent sight lines. Behind each goal there are identical two tier stands, with a screen perched on the roof. The south stand’s upper tier is smaller as there is a double layer of executive boxes here. The North stand is a three tier affair, with the roof sloping up in the corners.

The concourses are the only issue – they are quite cramped and during halftime it can be a bit of a struggle to move from one side of the stand to another.

How to get there
The stadium is located in the east of the city, hemmed in by the train line to Zurich, and the motorway. It is almost the demarcation point between the centre and the suburbs. The stadium is walkable – certainly from the area close to the main station it is no more than 30 minutes away. On a matchday special football shuttle trains run from the central station to a stop behind the north stand every 15 minutes. Alternatively you can catch tram number 14 that runs through the centre of the old town – from Markplatz the stadium stop St Jakob is 8 stops or around 11 minutes away – tickets cost CHF3 each way. If you are drivng from out of town then it may be easier to head to the areas to the east of the stadium close to the tram line and then use this excellent method of transport in.
Getting a ticket
Domestic football in Switzerland is not necessarily the most passionate affair. Attendances tend to be quite low, and the big four of Young Boys, FC Basel and the two Zurich clubs fail to attract on average more than 50% stadium utilisation, meaning that tickets are always available on the day. FC Basel are the best supported team at the current time in Switzerland, and have an average attendance north of 20,000. However, with a stadium that can hold over 30,000 sell outs are exceptionally rare. Tickets can be purchased from the kiosks around the stadium on a matchday, or if your German is good via the official website. If you are buying from the UK then you will need to pick the ticket up on the day of the game from the Fanshop on the west side of the stadium. Ticket prices range from CHF to CHF. The “hardcore” fans are located in the east lower tier. A good seat for the neutral is in the north stand upper tiers.
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