On the waterfront

On the banks of a picturesque Alpine lake in the heart of French-speaking Switzerland sits the tiny town of Neuchâtel.  This is picture-postcard ville.  The steep Jura mountains, part of the lower Alps rise high up on both sides of the lake, whilst expensive looking boats bob up and down on the calm waters.  On Sunday’s here you could hear a pin drop.  That was until the 14:32 from Zürich arrived and decamped the wild boys of FCZ who were here to back their team in the Super Sunday Axpo Super League showdown against Neuchâtel Xamax.

The town is the home today for the likes of tennis stars Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon and Florent Serra as well as Roberto Milani (aka Robert Miles) who wrote such 90’s Electronic classics as Fable and Dreams.  But today they had batterned down the hatches or simply left town.  Today was not a day to be “sitting, chillin’ and having a coffee”.

Down by the lakeside the Stade de la Maladière these days is buzzing again.  The Swiss Champions from 1987 and 1988 were runners up in the Swiss Cup last season, their first return to nearly winning some honours for some time. This season their form has surprised many people as they sit in mid-table, although FCZ’s form is probably more of a worry as they came into this game in 8th place (out of ten) – hardly the form you would expect from the Swiss Champions of just two years ago.

Xamax have hit the headlines for off the pitch activities in recent times. In May there were acquired by powerful Chechen businessman Bulat Chagaev. The takeover caught Swiss politicians and soccer fans by surprise. And since his purchase of the club, Mr. Chagaev has kept his new employees on their toes by orchestrating a fast-paced game of musical chairs, ousting about 30 staff members and replacing the coach three times. His spell so far has seen numerous people coming and going from the club as well as a reported incident where Mr. Chagaev, along with his bodyguards, entered the players changing room to lambaste the coach, prompting media speculation that another coaching change was imminent. Instead, it was the turn of the clubs recently appointed director general, Marc Imwinkelried, who received his marching orders. You can read more of the story here.

As my train trundled along the edge of Lake Neuchâtel you knew how Wordsworth felt when he penned “As I wandered lonely as a cloud”. The afternoon sun was reflecting off the mill pond surface of the lake and what could make the afternoon any better? Well how about a few Swiss beers and some football? Don’t mind if I do.

The train rolled into Neuchâtel. It was a bit hilly. Despite Uncle Google saying it was only a 12 minute walk to the stadium I could see that I was high above the floodlights. Twelve minutes there, twelve hours back!

I found the press entrance and got a nightclub-esque wrist band. No problems there then but with access to the press tribune through the tunnel, and my tardiness meaning I only got there at 3:55pm I took my place at the back of the two teams as they lined up in the tunnel and walked out with them.

The stadium is unusual to say the least. It is smart, functional and very red. The grass looked a little too green and I dared to put my foot on the pitch. It was not real. No real issue there, apart from the fact they were heavily watering it. I am sure someone with a degree in Physics will tell me the reason for this but for now I am completely at a loss.

Neuchâtel Xamax 3 FC Zürich 1 – Stade de la Maladière – Sunday 6th November 2011
Without a laptop I resorted to actually writing notes on the game. At one point I got too carried away and started drawing chalkboards of the game, but then I realised that the players actually had no idea where they were playing and were making it up as they went along.

At the back for Xamax was David Navarro.  That is David Navarro who was involved in THIS incident a few years ago whilst playing for Valencia against Inter Milan and saw him banned from football for six months.

The game was open enough with both teams playing with a 4-3-2-1 formation (STOP IT NOW)…The one surprise was that we had to wait until the 24th minute for the first goal, although it was certainly worth the wait. Uche Kalu picked the ball up on the edge of the area, danced his way inside two defenders and slotted the ball home to give Xamax the lead.

Their lead lasted just four minutes. Admir Mehmedi had already missed a sitter for FCZ and the home crowd started getting on his back when he picked the ball up on the edge of the area. But he had the last laugh when he curled the ball into the Xamax net to bring the sides level. The away fans, who hardly ever let up their singing all afternoon broke into a rendition of Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow to celebrate.

Four minutes later it was 2-1 to the home side. A well work free-kick was sent into the area and centre-forward Arizmendi Angel Javier rose the highest to head home. A breathless half came to an end and I tucked into my Oat Crunch biscuits (thank you BA Executive Lounge).

We had more of the same in the second half with both teams trying to create chances. Tackles were flying in and it was no surprise that the referee brandished five yellows in the second period. One disappointment was the crowd – just 3,606 which was thousands less that Luton Town versus Fleetwood in the Conference Premier yesterday. My last two Swiss Super Liga games has seen crowds sub 4,000. How do these clubs actually survive?

It could have gone either way right up until the final minute of four given for injury time. A stupid challenge from the FCZ centre-back saw the referee point to the spot, and after some internal wrangles as to who would take it, up stepped Kalu to score his second goal of the afternoon and Xamax’s third. With no time left to kick off again it was a vital win for Xamax, but perhaps more importantly, with Grasshoppers winning, seeing FCZ, Champions League group stage participants just last season, drop into the relegation spots.

All that was left for me was the hike uphill to the station. I tried to recruit a Ghurka to help me but they were busy with Joanna Lumley – Good job they provided free oxygen at the top – and get back on my train to Zürich, which with typical Swiss efficiency rolled into the Hauptbhanhof on the dot.  Well, for £80 return you expect punctuality.

More pictures from the afternoon by the lake can be found here.

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