Basel offer ray of hope for Swiss
FC Basel are on the verge of breaking new ground. The reigning Swiss Super League champions head into Tuesday's UEFA Champions League second round, second leg against Bayern Munich with a 1-0 advantage.
If Basel can beat Bayern over two legs they will become the first Swiss club to make the Champions League quarter-finals. Few people would expect that fans of other Swiss clubs would be cheering them on. Basel have won six championships and five Swiss Cups in the past decade but, despite that dominance, it would be no surprise if football fans all over Switzerland were quietly backing them on Tuesday night.
It has been a tough couple of months for Swiss football. In December, FC Sion were deducted 36 points for fielding players who had been signed during a transfer ban. In January, Neuchatel Xamax were thrown out of the league for suspected financial fraud. On March 1, Servette filed for bankruptcy.
The European summer is unlikely to raise morale because Switzerland failed to qualify for Euro 2012 - the first major tournament they have missed out on since the 2002 World Cup.
The one glimmer of hope is FC Basel's run in the Champions League. And it's about more than one club. It's about the future of the Swiss national team. In particular, the handful of young locals in Basel's starting line up - a quintet who could turn the Alpine country into a heavyweight in international football.
Goalkeeper Yann Sommer, midfielders Xherdan Shaqiri, Fabian Frei and Granit Xhaka, and attacker Valentin Stocker have all played their part in getting Basel to within one match of a quarter final berth.
On February 22 at St Jakob-Park in Basel, Stocker stunned Bayern when he came off the bench and scored with four minutes to go to give his side a 1-0 lead in the first leg. The 22-year-old has been out for most of the season because of a knee ligament injury, but Basel's manager Heiko Vogel has shown how much he rates Stocker by using him off the bench in both Champions League matches since his return.
Sommer was the true match winner against Bayern, however, denying the likes of Franck Ribery and Mario Gomez with some incredible saves, which kept the German visitors goalless.
Sommer, Frei and Xhaka have started every Champions League match for Basel this season. Frei was particularly influential in the group stages, scoring three goals as Basel finished second in Group C behind Benfica, knocking out Manchester United in the process.
The 23-year-old, who is no relation to his team-mate Alexander Frei, is a hard-working central midfielder with great vision and a passing ability to match. Frei is often paired with Xhaka in the middle of the park. The 19-year-old complements Frei perfectly, providing a bit more passion and power to his team-mate's class. Xhaka has a powerful shot and loves to scrap, covering a lot of ground to harass the opposition.
The clear star of the bunch, though, is Shaqiri. The stocky 20-year-old often plays on the right side of midfield, which allows him to cut inside and use his brilliant left foot to either create or score goals. Shaqiri will join Bayern at the end of the season after signing a pre-contract in February.
The attacking midfielder was crucial in Basel's 2-1 victory over Manchester United in December, which ended the Red Devils' Champions League involvement for this season, setting up both of Basel's goals with brilliant crosses.
Basel's young Swiss brigade were all involved in Switzerland's run to the final at the 2011 Under-21 European Championships and, again, it was Shaqiri who made an impression. The attacking dynamo's close ball control and dead-ball ability were a joy to watch. Unfortunately for Switzerland, they looked shell-shocked in the final against a terrific Spanish side and failed to live up to expectations in a meek 2-0 defeat. Nonetheless, the overall performance followed on from Switzerland's impressive results at junior level in 2009: they won the Under-17 World Cup that year, while also making the semi-finals at the Under-17 European Championships.
Xhaka was involved in both those tournaments and, alongside Frei, Shaqiri and Stocker, is now making his mark on the senior national team. Sommer is the only member of the Basel quintet yet to play for the senior team but the 23-year-old mustn't be far away after his form in the Champions League.
In Switzerland's recent 3-1 loss to Argentina, manager Ottmar Hitzfeld picked a starting line-up with an average age of just over 23. The youngsters from Basel are the core of a new generation of players that will be key to Switzerland's future success on the football field.
Against Argentina, Shaqiri, Xhaka and Frei started alongside 20-year-olds Francois Affolter and Admir Mehmedi, as well as 19-year-old Ricardo Rodriguez. With experienced players like Juventus' Stephan Lichsteiner and Napoli's Gokhan Inler - another graduate of Basel's youth system - providing leadership, Hitzfeld's new crop could develop into a serious international force over the next five years. But after their timid display in the Under-21 final last year, it's clear more big-game experience is needed, and that's why the Champions League run is so important.
A good result in Munich will mean a spot in the quarter-finals for Basel, which would be a great experience for the club's young Swiss contingent. If this quintet achieves big things with Switzerland's national team, chalk up this season's Champions League as a major step in their development.