Basel occupy a kind of no-man’s-land where they are a bit too good for Switzerland, yet not quite strong enough to compete with Europe’s elite, club president Bernhard Heusler says.
The Swiss league champions, who host Chelsea in a Europa League semi-final first leg today, like to be seen as a club who do everything right.
Basel train and develop local players, keep ticket prices affordable for fans, shun rich investors and are financially viable.
They have been rewarded with three successive national league titles, two consecutive Swiss Cup wins and boast an impressive average attendance of 28,000.
However, when it comes to European competition they have to accept the role of minnows, a situation they share with many clubs from outside the big five leagues of England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany.
“We are in a special situation where we have won the championship three times in a row, but on the other hand the investment we need for the Champions League is too high for the reality of the national league,” Heusler said in an interview. “We are walking a tightrope and this is something we share with a lot of clubs. I know the Chelsea supporters will think of us as just a small Swiss club.”
In bygone days teams from Switzerland occasionally reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, while clubs from Belgium, Romania, Scotland, Sweden and Greece all got as far as the final.
The gap now between the big five leagues and the rest is getting ever wider and Basel are typical of a small club who find that mounting a challenge for the UEFA Champions League is simply beyond their means.
Instead they have to be content with domestic dominance and the second-tier Europa League.
Remembering how Zurich reached the European Cup semis 36 years ago, Heusler said: “That seems impossible nowadays.”
“It is not so long ago that in Switzerland you could watch one English match every year, the FA Cup final. Everybody would watch it on television and that was the big thing,” he said. “Nowadays, fans can watch English league games 10 times a week if they want. They can watch Barcelona every week, too, so it’s understandable the level of expectation has risen. I believe all leagues in Europe below the top five are suffering a bit because of this.”
Despite their excellent home gates, the money generated from gate receipts, television rights and sponsorship is still only enough to generate revenue of between SF30 million (US$32 million) to SF35 million a season. Annual expenditure is about SF40 million to SF45 million, with Basel using other sources such as transfer sales and income from European competition to bridge the gap.
The best academy products, such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, often leave early in their careers for foreign teams, but Heusler emphasized the club do not count on transfer income every season.
“We don’t budget for it,” he said. “It would be easy to generate 30 or 40 million Swiss francs out of transfers in one year, but then we would lose the quality in the squad. I want to strengthen the basis of the club’s finances so this gap will be smaller and we can afford not to be successful for two or three years in a row without being afraid the club will go belly up.”
Basel have adopted a three-tier structure in their squad.
One third consists of experienced Swiss or foreign players, another third of youngsters raised at the club and the remainder is made up of foreigners who use the Swiss champions as a springboard to a career in one of the bigger leagues.
Despite his delight at Basel’s Europa League progress, Heusler said it was not the same competition as the Champions League, where they reached the round-of-16 last season.
“We played AS Roma in successive years, one year in the Europa League and one in the Champions League,” he said. “In the Europa League we had 15,000 people and we had trouble getting that many. One year later we had 36,000, fully sold out. It’s the money.”
“People can tell me what they want, but at the end of the day the huge amounts of money in the Champions League have brought about a huge difference in the way the competitions are looked at by the public,” Heusler said. “People believe it’s much more important to play a Champions League game than a Europa League game, which is sad in a way. I remember the times when we had the European Cup, UEFA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup, and as a fan at the time it was not important for me where we played, it was just wonderful to play in Europe.”