Mark Elliott2 Comments

THE DECLINE OF GRASSHOPPER ZÜRICH

Mark Elliott2 Comments

A famous name falls on hard times.

English football is inherently conservative in almost every way. That’s why a child’s first experience of midweek European games can be so mind altering.

Visually it’s shocking; some of those continentals really know how to dress, striding onto rain-soaked pitches in HOME shirts that blind small English eyes (take a bow Borussia Dortmund). Then, without a United or City in sight there are the team names.

How did the people of Amsterdam get away with naming their club after a mythological hero and as for that Swiss side......Grasshopper? Amazing!

Unfortunately Grasshopper isn’t amazing anymore. In fact their problems run so deep that they could be relegated, a fate which would condemn a remarkable club to European football obscurity.

Their decline has continued unabated over the past eight and a half years. In 2003 they won the Swiss championship for the 27th time, a total which far exceeds that of any other club but since then it’s all gone wrong.

This season they sit second from bottom in the Super League having won just six of their eighteen games. If they finish the season there they will face a relegation play-off against the team which finishes second in the Challenge League. Earlier on this year they lost 6-0 to bitter rivals FC Zürich.

According to the Swiss sports journalist Guido Tognoni, Grasshopper has struggled to come to terms with its new found lowly station, something which may have contributed to its decline.

"They still believe that they are the biggest and greatest club and have been unable to reduce their budget," he told the website swissinfo.ch.

"They are now in a very messy situation with no stadium, no money and few good players." 

When they last won the title, the Grasshopper squad included future stars such as Stephan Lichtsteiner and Mladen Petric. Indeed, in the not so distant past the club could call upon the likes of Stephan Chapuisat, Viorel Moldovan and Giovane Elber.

Now the policy of blending the best Swiss talent with ambitious imports out to make a mark in Europe before moving on to a bigger league is gone. The average age of the side that played Thun earlier this month was just under 23. The club is now relying on youth to get them out of trouble.

That tactic is undermined by the monetary problems which mean that they cannot keep their best young players. 22 year old Innocent Emeghara was snapped up by Lorient for €2.5m after scoring five goals in seven games during the early part of the season.

The clubs financial position is an extremely perilous one. Two years ago then President Roger Berbig declared that the club could be relegated unless new investment was found due to reported debts of more than £7m. Servette were demoted in similar circumstances after failing to meet Swiss Football League regulations in 2005, as were Lausanne in 2002.

Rigorous cost cutting kept the club afloat but it’s easy to see why they’re finding it difficult to turn around years of mismanagement without European football and the extra cash it brings in.

Swiss clubs operate in a different financial reality to their counterparts in the Premier League. The Super League’s TV deal is worth £21.7m per season, while the Premier League will earn a total of £3.2b from various agreements covering 2010-13.

To make matters worse the club has been without a stadium for the past four years. In 2007, Grasshopper moved out of the Hardturm, its home since 1929 after the City of Zürich and Credit Suisse promised to back the construction of a new ground on that sight in time to host games during Euro 2008.

Grasshopper moved into the Leitzgrund, home of FC Zürich and the Hardturm was demolished. Legal challenges then delayed construction and in the end it was FCZ’s home that was used during the tournament. The local authorities promised that the new Stadion Zürich would still be built for both clubs to share but three years later construction is yet to begin.

In such circumstances it’s easy to see why attendances are down too. This season, the club’s average home crowd has fallen to 5,125, down from 6,789 last season and 7,257 three seasons ago.

Families have been further discouraged from attending by a worrying growth in hooliganism. Earlier this season the derby with FCZ was abandoned 15 minutes early as rival groups clashed, throwing fireworks at each other in the stands.

The violence and small crowds (the league average is still just 11,365 despite some recent growth) have contributed to the poor image Swiss football has within its own country and abroad. With a product devoid of glamour, both the league and clubs are struggling to market themselves which further limits potential income for cash-strapped clubs like Grasshopper.

In an interview with swissinfo.ch, Hans-Willy Brockes, the head of Swiss sports marketing firm ESB said: “The problem is that marketers do not view football as a premium product, unlike ice hockey or the Weltklasse athletics events.”

Without a much needed injection of cash, the club has struggled to meet the rent payments to the City of Zürich for their use of Leitzgrund. Prior to the start of the season, Urs Linsi, the former Chief Financial Officer at FIFA who was brought in to help rescue the club threatened to move it 30 miles to a groundshare with FC Aarau unless the fees were reduced.

“Better for the club to live in Aarau than die in Zürich,”  he said at the time.

 

The club limps on in Zürich but without a new stadium or billionaire benefactor it’s difficult to imagine Grasshopper returning to prominence in Switzerland.

Backed by Gisela Oeri’s vast wealth Basel are dominant at home and making waves abroad. They reached the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time this season after a run of six domestic titles in nine years.

Like countless teams in smaller leagues, Grasshopper cannot compete anymore. Homeless, pennyless and struggling for support one of European football’s greatest names continues its fight to survive.

Mark can be found on Twitter @markleeelliott.

 

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