Football fans in Switzerland have not had long to wait for their domestic season to start since the end of the FIFA World Cup - just three days in fact. The Nationalliga A kicks off today with the meeting of UEFA Intertoto Cup entrants FC Zürich and FC St. Gallen.
A July start is needed due to the combination of the long winter break, UEFA competition and the 12-team top flight, although the first division is expected to be reduced to ten clubs for the 2003/04 season. The new campaign comes just eight weeks after FC Basel completed the league and Swiss Cup double.
The biggest change in the close season has been the replacement of FC Lugano, Lausanne-Sports and FC Sion with SR Delémont and the reinstated FC Luzern and FC Aarau, all three demoted teams losing their status due to financial problems. The other newcomers are FC Thun and FC Wil 1900 after both caused a surprise by finishing in the top four of the 2001/02 promotion/relegation round.
Disappointment for Lugano
Lugano's relegation will be felt the hardest after they finished third last season behind Basel and runners-up Grasshopper-Club. Nonetheless, Lugano will still compete in the 2002/03 UEFA Cup along with Grasshoppers and Servette FC.
Basel, coached by former Tottenham Hotspur FC manager Christian Gross, are once again tipped to lead the way, having signed Lugano's leading scorer from last season, Julio Hernan Rossi. Gross is taking nothing for granted, though, saying: "We have no reason to underestimate any of our opponents or act arrogantly." Basel open against Aarau on Saturday, and will start their UEFA Champions League campaign in the second qualifying round against Slovakian team MŠK Zilina.
Young Boys make signings
Grasshoppers and Servette are expected to be Basel's main challengers, although BSC Young Boys have been busy in the transfer market, signing experienced forwards Joël Magnin and Stéphane Chapuisat, Switzerland Under-21 defender Luca Denicola and Brazilian midfield player Paulinho.
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