The Devastating Decline of an Iconic Swiss Institution – A Focus on Fussball Club Basel 1893

Nestled quaintly amongst the picturesque setting on the river Rhine, deep within northwestern Switzerland, lies the iconic football institution of Fussball Club Basel 1893, recognised globally as FC Basel. The 20-time winners of the Swiss Super League, who famously tested the might of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United on four separate occasions, are recognised as a leading light of Swiss football – one that has seen perennial conquests of multiple European competitions. 


But, as eager eyes often focus on the powerhouses of the ‘Big Five’ super leagues of Europe, many football supporters are unaware of the heartbreaking decline that has occurred on the doorstep of RotBlau, with questionable decisions at the boardroom level leaving an undeniable mark on the decline of this once formidable domestic giant. From the side that proudly dominated domestic foe for eight consecutive seasons to one where supporters now contemplate the possibility of relegation, this is the story of the decline of FCB. 



To appreciate the magnitude of this downfall, we must first understand the journey and remarkable results that shaped the image of this side. Founded in 1893 following an article by Roland Geldner in the Basler national newspaper, the club set about humble beginnings and plenty of early struggles in an attempt to solidify itself amongst the powerhouses of Swiss football. It took them forty years to first taste silverware – earning a dramatic victory over arch-rivals Grasshopper Club Zürich in the final of the 1933 Swiss Cup. 


A period of instability came afterwards, with relegation and missed promotion opportunities etching hard-learned lessons into the club ethos. But this cultivated a sense of desire within the association, with a return of seven league titles, three additional Swiss Cups and the club’s only League Cup success collected from 1966 to 1980. The hardened supporter at St. Jakob-Park would have to wait 21 years for their next league title, with patrons enduring a variety of time spent in the bottom half of the table and spells in the second tier of the domestic game. 


When supporters lined out for the opening fixture of the 2000/21 season, confidence was beginning to grow within the stands. In their 108th year, René C. Jäggi was the club’s chairman for the fifth consecutive campaign, with first-team coach Christian Gross commencing his second calendar year in the hot seat following a forgettable season-stint with Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. 


Gross set about solidifying his ultimate vision, acquiring the likes of André Muff, Miroslav König, and Hakan Yakin from Grasshoppers. His front line welcomed the arrival of Hervé Tum and Jean-Michel Tchouga, with Ivan Ergić and Carlos Varela bolstering the midfield. While the campaign failed to deliver silverware, a sense of unity was building within the  ranks, with supporters overjoyed with the opening of the state-of-the-art new St. Jakob-Park in March of 2001.


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The following season saw the arrival of Scott Chipperfield and Christian Eduardo, with Pascal Zuberbühler returning from a year sabbatical in Germany, and youth players Philipp Degen and Marco Streller joining the first team following confirmation of their first professional contracts. A league and cup double inevitably followed – replicating the heroics of the famous crop from 1966. Gross would lead his side to another three league and cup victories, with a second double completed in 2008, before departing for Bundesliga side VfB Stuttgart in 2009. 


Despite a marginal degree of uncertainty in the aftermath of his departure, a successful structure was implemented – with a platform for future success identified. Veteran German midfielder Thorsten Fink arrived as a relatively inexperienced coach but immediately understood the internal infrastructure he had inherited. He enjoyed a league and cup double in his maiden campaign, retaining the league in his second and final season following an unsavoury departure because of alleged racial allegations. 


The club’s back-to-back league successes were the first of a historic eight-title run that included a further two domestic doubles from 2009 to 2017, with Heiko Vogel, Murat Yakin, Paulo Sousa, and Urs Fischer all earning their spot in the history books as title-winning coaches with the famous Swiss outfit. More importantly, the success of 2016/17 secured a historic 20th title, becoming the second Swiss club – behind Grasshoppers – to obtain the prestigious second star above their crest. 


While their domestic exploits hold exceptional plaudits in Switzerland, the club rose to continental prominence because of their continuous European outings. Astonishingly, Bebbi has been a consistent feature in UEFA competitions since the 1999-2000 campaign, outperforming every other domestic rival. The club has proudly qualified for the Champions League group stages on seven occasions. Furthermore, Basel set a new record for Swiss clubs by achieving 14 points in their Conference League group in 2021, later reaching the semi-finals of the same competition during the 2022/23 season. 



Basel had previously tasted semi-final competition in 2013, losing out to Premier League side Chelsea in an enthralling two-legged Europa League encounter. But for many, a trip to Old Trafford two years prior returned one of the most memorable European nights of all – with Basel minutes from snatching a winner in an iconic 3-3 draw against Fergies legendary United side in a Champions League encounter – inevitably winning the return fixture by two goals to one in Switzerland. 


At this point, we have learned about a domestic juggernaut that successfully cultivated a winning mentality from juveniles to seniors, with perennial appearances in European elite cup competitions and the prestige of acquiring a twentieth Swiss league title. It appeared as though the good times would never stop, and the inevitability of a European final seemed all but a foregone conclusion given the club’s ability to purchase players for a minuscule fee, only to sell for maximum profits on their terms. 


So, how did the title-winning side of 2016/17 see a 17-point victory transform into a 15-point deficit the following season, with a first trophyless campaign endured after eight successive league victories?


At the core of this horrific downfall lies the departure of Club president Bernhard Heusler in 2017. The former president and delegate of the board of directors oversaw the historic eight-in-a-row while also aiding FC Basel to record a turnover of over 100 million Swiss francs for the first time.


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Adored by club officials and supporters alike, he was awarded the title of honorary president following his exit. Naturally, the club was in tremendous condition and primed for his successor to continue their dominance. Enter Bernhard Burgener. 


Burgener was a local businessman with an accomplished career as a media entrepreneur. He assumed control with extravagant plans to mould the club in his image while shaping the hierarchy in a manner befitting several club legends. One of the notable decisions taken at an early stage was the promotion of Marco Streller from club representative to sporting director, despite a lack of experience in this critical role. A perception of generating “jobs for the boys” and accommodating friends for sentimental purposes rather than merit quickly surfaced. 


Further to the promotion of Streller, Burgener oversaw the controversial decision to part company with Urs Fischer following the expiry of his contract, instead opting for another largely inexperienced name in youth boss Raphael Wicky.


The Leuggern native was promoted from his role as U21 head coach following three seasons guiding the U18 crop. Burgener identified a long-term goal to achieve six to eight Basel players in the first team, including four to six from the youth establishment. A desire to recreate the success stories of household names like Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Yann Sommer was a primary ambition for the new president. 



While Basel was undergoing a monumental change in structure, with key players like Manuel Akanji departing for Germany in January 2018, their closest rivals in BSC Young Boys (YB) were also looking to build on their second-placed finish with the appointment of Christoph Spycher as sporting director. The Wolhusen native oversaw the recruitment of essential figures, with Kevin Mbabu and Jean-Pierre Nsame two of many shrewd acquisitions. While supporters anticipated a closer battle for domestic dominance, few could have envisaged such a dramatic shift of fortunes. 


Despite a memorable Champions League campaign that saw passage to the last-16 with an impressive away victory to Manchester City, Basel endured a dramatic dip in their league form – particularly in the second half of the calendar. Inevitably, YB ran away with the league title, coasting home with a 15-point lead and ending the extraordinary dominance RotBlau had displayed over their rivals for the previous eight seasons. 


Suffering the disappointment endured during an unfamiliar campaign, Wicky remained as coach for the start of the 2018/19 season. However, the board swiftly reversed their decision, sacking him after only two games following a 2-1 away defeat to PAOK in a Champions League qualifier. The club moved swiftly and appointed Marcel Koller as his replacement. The ex-Austrian international head coach offered experience and knowledge during a precarious time.


However, results remained poor, and the side was knocked out of European competition by Apollon Limassol, marking the first time since the early 2000s that they failed to make it to the group stage. To further compound the feeling of disenchantment surrounding the club, Basel suffered the ultimate humiliation in enduring a 7-1 defeat against YB in his 11th game in the hot seat, emphasising the passing of the guard in Switzerland. 


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The consensus amongst the team’s passionate support was an acceptance that their domination could not last forever. The difficulty that many endured was the disconnect they felt with the club and the trouble encountered when attempting to identify what was occurring. Koller did manage to settle the ship somewhat – winning a cup in 2019 – but an array of questionable off-the-field decisions left supporters disenchanted while their rivals in Bern grew from strength to strength. 


Streller resigned from his position as sporting director in 2019 – following a disagreement with the hierarchy, leading to the eventual financial burden of COVID-19 and the indelible mark left on the club. Furthermore, Burgener’s presidency cost the club 20 million – leaving supporters astounded at the calamity occurring at the board level and the horrific fall-from-grace for this once financial monster of the footballing world. Supporters had witnessed enough and began protesting for Burgener to stand down from his position. 


Ciriaco Sforza replaced Koller as head coach in the summer of 2020, with supporter groups agitated by a cheap option for an inexperienced manager, who many saw as incapable of battling the perils of a top-tier club. Those who doubted his credibility were proved correct following a 6-1 cup defeat to second-tier minnows Winterthur at St. Jakob-Park. Despite an outpouring of underwhelmed supporters, Burgener saw Sforza as a long-term option, leading to a barrage of disgruntled public showings with protests from key Basel supporters. 


Much to the delirium of supporters at home and abroad, Burgener revealed he would not seek re-election as president on the club’s website in an interview on September 29, 2020. In a parting statement, he clarified that his decision was part of a longer process – not regarding the criticism surrounding him. On May 11, 2021, it was announced that David Degen was taking over Burgener’s shares. 



Degen became the largest shareholder at the club in August 2021, highlighting his dream to return the club to its older model of tracking youth players, developing them with FCB core fundamentals and selling them for profit following several years of established performances. As a former player, Degen represents a new hope, although supporters continue to question the decision-making in the board room. 


The club continues to suffer domestic misfortune today, dropping as low as the bottom half of the table – a first since 1998. There are still question marks over Degen and the benefit he offers towards a return to the days of old. Fabio Celestini was appointed head coach in October 2023, with the club sitting rock bottom of the Swiss Super League. While he has managed to settle the ship, a decision to extend his contract has received a mixed response from supporters, with many scarred by the heartache received since the departure of Bernhard Heusler.


Having shared time with several supporters over the past week, I have learned much about the frustrations within the terraces of their iconic stadium. From a shared perspective, the overwhelming feeling is agony. They can not comprehend how fast their club has fallen and, more importantly, how utterly needless it has been. There is a feeling of sabotage, and the way the club has been ripped from their grasp – losing all identity – is the greatest heartbreak. 


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The landmark of European football has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, and Switzerland is no different. Grasshoppers – the most successful domestic side in the league’s history has endured relegation, so the mighty FC Basel are far from infallible. While it may be hard to process, this catastrophic fall from grace was equally hard to comprehend. The following 12-18 months could prove critical in the fortunes of this famous club, with an uncertain future pinning a very dark cloud over the hallowed turf at St. Jakob-Park. 


Shaun Connolly is the editor-in-chief for Theatre of Red and the European Football Correspondent for Breaking the Lines. Subscribe to his free newsletter here, and follow him on Twitter @shaunconnolly85 & @theatre_of_red


Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Aitor Alcalde – UEFA