Basel gears up for game of games

Whatever happens against Liverpool FC, the UEFA Champions League has put Switzerland's second city on the map.

Nudging the borders of France and Germany, the Swiss city of Basel could be forgiven something of an identity crisis as its twin names of Bâle and Basel testify. However, the success so far  FC Basel in this season's UEFA Champions League has provided a new focus, putting Switzerland's second city on the European football map.

Football fever
But as Basel prepare for their Champions League match against Liverpool FC, seeking to become the first Swiss club to reach the second group stage of the competition, you could be forgiven for thinking that football fever has yet to grip this thriving commercial city.

Eve of the match
On the eve of the match, even the approach to Basel's bubble-wrapped Saint Jakob Park stadium provided few clues that the club would be playing probably the biggest match in their history the following day. More prominent than any football references were posters advertising the Basel Dragons hockey team's next outing on the ice and the Swiss Indoors tennis event that took place last month.

Few signs
The stadium's well-appointed club shop also showed few signs of fan mania, boasting just four potential customers when visited despite an impressive range of merchandise that included FC Basel cigars, toothpicks and even a pure woollen poncho in the club livery. Despite the presence of both the UEFA and FIFA headquarters in Switzerland, the country has never been a football hotbed, nevertheless it would be all to easy to underestimate the game's appeal to the Swiss people.

Swiss force
Indeed, there are signs that Switzerland is emerging as a force in European football. The country's Under-17 side won last summer's UEFA European Championship while, at U21 level, the Swiss qualified for and hosted the European Championship finals. Meanwhile, the senior team currently lead their UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying group with seven points from three games.

'Successful year'
Basel coach Christian Gross alluded to this when he spoke to on Tuesday. "Swiss football has had a successful year starting with our U17s winning our first European title," he said. "It is too early to say now what Basel reaching the second group stage would mean for Swiss football, but it is a very important match – the game of games this season. Although for me, there was more pressure ahead of the Celtic [FC] qualifying matches."

Sell out
When pressed Gross conceded that "this is the biggest match" of his career. And in typically low-key fashion, the people of Basel are well aware of the importance of the match. Basel's three home Champions League matches each sold out in less than two hours, with fans camping out overnight to get a ticket.

Press gang
Indeed the interest in the city is such that 4,000 will pay to watch the match on a giant screen within earshot of the stadium, while a record 190 written press and 50 radio journalists will be in the stadium.

Previous success
Basel reached the quarter-finals of the old European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1973/74 before losing 6-5 on aggregate to Celtic. However, the Liverpool match is in a different league according to overworked press officer Josef Zindel. "I don't know if it is the biggest match in Swiss football ever," he said. "After all the national team has qualified for the [FIFA] World Cup. But it is perhaps the biggest match for a Swiss club ever." Not too much pressure then for Gross and his players.