Sunday 14 July 2019

Switzerland's Most Succesful Club Gearing Up For LIfe Outside The Top Flight For The First Time In Almost Seven Decades

They have a record 27 Swiss league titles to their name, and last season was their 68th straight in the top tier of Swiss football, but when the new Super League campaign starts later this month Grasshopper Club Zürich will be missing. For the first time in almost seven decades, Grasshoppers will be plying their trade outside the top flight.

Since winning their last league title in 2003, Grasshoppers have been beset by financial mismanagement, alleged fraud, constant changes in the boardroom, and the instability of thirteen different managers in sixteen years, not to mention the demolition of their historic Hardturm stadium which has left them homeless and groundsharing with city rivals FC Zurich. The above combined with a decline TV revenue and sponsorship income across Swiss football which has arguably seen Grasshoppers hit harder than most, has also helped bring about an eventual relegation that's seen the club crash out of the top division and face life in the second tier Challenge League for the first time since 1951.

That aforementioned stadium issue came about when plans to build a 30,700-seat stadium on the site of their old Hardturm home had to be shelved. Originally planned to be built in the time for Euro 2008, the project was delayed and then later scrapped in 2009 when the main backers Credit Suisse pulled out citing the banking crisis. By this point, the Hardturm had already been knocked down and what was meant to be a temporary stay at the home of their arch rivals suddenly looked like it would become a more long term affair.

In 2018 a referendum saw locals vote in favour of a new planned stadium for Grasshoppers, but at the minute they are still playing their matches at FC Zurich's Stadion Letzigrund. Before last seasons relegation, their league form at Letzigrund had been rather mixed, several second placed finishes have been combined with stints lower down the table, finishing as low as third bottom 2011-12 and second bottom just above the relegation spot the season before last. There was, however, a Swiss Cup triumph in 2013 when they beat FC Basel on penalties in the final.

For all the recent troubles, it wasn't till last season that Grasshoppers actually hit rock bottom. Summing up their plight, local daily newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung recently described the club as being 'terminally ill', and after events earlier this year that phrase does not seem too far off being accurate. 2018-19 saw Grasshoppers in a 36 game season end up with just five victories to their name and finishing some twelve points behind second bottom Neuchâtel Xamax. But that was only half the story... 

On 16 March Grasshoppers' match away at Sion was abandoned after 56 minutes when visiting fans started throwing fireworks onto the pitch. The home side who were 2-0 up at the time were awarded a 3-0 victory. Things got even worse when the club saw a second match of theirs abandoned less than two months later. The game away at FC Luzern on 12 May saw visiting Grasshopper supporters threaten to invade the pitch and reportedly demand the team's players hand over their shirts stating they were not fit to wear them, or as the Daily Mail claimed, told them: 'Hand over your shirts and socks and crawl back to the dressing room like dogs'. With attempts to calm supporters down unsuccessful, the players unbelievably did eventually hand their shirts over. The bottom of the league club were 4-0 down when the match was stopped. The result if allowed to stand would relegate Grasshoppers but whilst a disciplinary panel took its time in awarding Luzern the 4-0 win, relegation was in the meantime officially confirmed anyway when four days later Grasshoppers lost 6-1 to champions Young Boys. A sorry end for one of Switzerland's grandest names. 

For a club that had not won a league game since last November, it had for quite a while felt like a case when not if, but that did not make the inevitable any easier when it finally happened as the reaction from supporters showed. But now the dust has settled and the club is moving on, preparing for life outside a top flight they had graced for so long. In less than a weeks time Grasshoppers kick off a new league campaign when they entertain FC Baden in the opening round of second tier Challenge League fixtures and will be hoping for a return to the top flight with help of several familiar names. Coach Uli Forte returned to the club last season, whilst former club captain Veroljub Salatic re signed for the club last month, shortly followed by fellow ex Grasshoppers player Nassim Ben Khalifa. Forte who says he wants an 'immediate resurgence' had previously been in charge when the club won the cup in 2013 and he returned as to replace Tomislav Stipic who was fired after just six games in charge having taken over from Thorsten Fink who left in March. 33-year-old midfielder Salatic meanwhile had played under Forte when the club won the Swiss Cup six years ago, whilst 27-year-old attacker Khalifa was also part of that cup winning side.

"Grasshopper Zurich is an institution and belongs in the Swiss Super League," said Forte after relegation was confirmed, and a name as big as Grasshoppers were always going to favourites for the second tier title, something that would mean an immediate return to the Super League. But whether or not the crisis hit club returns at the first attempt remains to be seen, after all this is alien territory for a club who had been in the top tier as long as Grasshoppers had.

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