Former Basel manager Thorsten Fink (right) alongside current boss Heiko Vogel

by Ben Loder

Apoel Nicosia have rightly attracted a great deal of attention in recent weeks for their incredible journey in this season’s Champions League, but they were not the only side competing in the last 16 who had exceeded expectations. FC Basel’s European campaign may have ultimately ended in disappointment, but after the 7-0 hammering in Munich, there are at least seven reasons they should be anything but ridiculed despite last Wednesday’s ignominious exit from the competition.

Tactics – Manager Heiko Vogel’s approach to the second leg may look naive in hindsight, but he deserves credit for showing courage that many coaches lack. With two up front in addition to the attacking threat posed by Xherdan Shaqiri and Fabian Frei on the wings and the ball-playing ability of Granit Xhaka in central midfield, he stuck to the system that had served the club well – not just in the first leg but also in the group stage, where they of course took four points from their two matches against the might of Manchester United. Rather than pushing Bayern’s dangerous inverted wingers Robben and Ribery outside onto their respective weaker foot, the defence stayed compact and trusted their ability to deal with the threat as a four. Ultimately, the concept failed, but so have most other team’s attempts to deal with the threat of “Ribrob” in such imperious form. In general, Basel’s combination of industry, organisation and slick passing has been a joy to watch this season. And, as the next point proves, it has been watched by many.

Fans –Despite being based in a city with fewer than 200,000 inhabitants, Basel’s matches in the 38,000-capacity St. Jakob-Park stadium are enjoyed by an average attendance of just under 30,000 for Swiss Super League matches, and the figure has not dropped below 25,000 this season. The closest challengers in terms of support are Young Boys Bern, with an average of 22,500, but their ground has been less than half full on occasion. By way of comparison, the two Zurich clubs, Grasshopper and FC, average just 16,000 fans combined.

Of course, whilst they may still be minor players, if not exactly minnows, on the European stage, Basel have had comparatively heavy financial backing since the late 1990s, and it is no coincidence that the cash injection was closely followed by a return to domestic success. But both that buyer, Swiss entrepreneur René Jäggi, and the owners who have followed him deserve credit for a number of reasons. Overall, the club can be seen as an example to follow for the top teams in all of Europe’s “smaller” leagues.

Continuity – He may still be considered a figure of fun in England (despite improving Spurs league position after his arrival and only being given three games the following season before getting the sack), but Christian Gross has more than proved his managerial ability in his native Switzerland. Thus it was easy for those in charge at Basel to leave Gross to get on with his job as he won eight trophies in ten years. But when he did move on to VfB Stuttgart in 2009, the relatively inexperienced Thorsten Fink was a brave appointment. The board have since spoken openly about their desire to break with the model of the concept manager with full control over all goings-on, and instead to create a strategy for the club and find a character to match it. Basel’s commitment to this idea was demonstrated when, after two league titles and a cup win in his two years in charge before he too was tempted to the Bundesliga, this time by HSV of Hamburg, Fink was replaced by his assistant Heiko Vogel. And there could hardly have been a starker vindication of the approach than Vogel’s side following up Fink’s draw at Old Trafford with a home win to knock the quintessential omnipotent gaffer, Sir Alex Ferguson, and “his” United side out of top-level European competition while simultaneously ensuring Basel’s progress.

Balancing finance and flair – For the first time since 2004, the last 16 of the Champions League this year contained no teams from Holland, Scotland, Scandinavia, the Ukraine or Greece. No Ajax or PSV, no Celtic or Rangers, No Shaktar and no Olympiacos – but Basel made it. This feat was not just the result of good organisation on the pitch, but also in the boardroom. The Axpo Super League unsurprisingly offers comparatively little financial support in the form of TV revenue, meaning that in 2010 almost half of the club’s income came directly from supporters. The necessity of keeping those fans coming through the gates was one factor in the selection of first Fink and then Vogel – managers the chairman rightly believed would not only bring success, but do so playing entertaining football. Of course, this system is reliant on assembling a group of talented players without spending big, which leads on nicely to the next point.

Youth development – FC Basel have unquestionably built up the best youth development system in Switzerland and are reaping the rewards. Seven of the starters against Bayern were either born in the local area, came through the youth set-up or featured for the club at youth level, with two more (Valentin Stocker and Philipp Degen) coming off the bench. Leverkusen’s Eren Derdiyok and Gökhan İnler of Napoli are two more Basel products who have performed in this season’s Champions League.

Transfer policy – As big fish in a small pond, Basel have mastered the art of the selling club. This point is of course closely tied to the aforementioned youth system. By flogging the players they have developed to richer clubs and sensibly reinvesting the profits, they have been able to further make up for the lack of funds coming in from television companies. However, they have also proved adept at increasing the value of players who do cost them a transfer fee. One example of this is Matías Delgado: brought over from his native Argentina in 2003 for €1.5 million, he was sold to Besiktas for €5.5 million, having fired the team to two league titles in three years with a goal every two games. Then there is Samuel Inkoom – bought as a 19-year-old for €540,000, he was moved on to Juande Ramos’s FC Dnipro in the Ukraine for ten times that amount 18 months later. It is part of the nature of football that a club the size of Basel can’t hold on to their best players forever, and a deal to take their current hottest talent, Xherdan Shaqiri, to their conquerors Bayern Munich this summer had already been agreed before the teams met. While boss Vogel and the fans will be sorry to see the playmaker go, history suggests that the fee, believed to be around €10 million, will be put to good use.

Generosity – OK, the club is not directly responsible for this one, and it’s probably small consolation to them on the back of such a heavy defeat. But if, as I was, you’re watching the match in a Bayern pub that gives out free shots for each goal scored by the Bavarians (at least until 4-0, when the threat of bankruptcy presumably loomed), then it’s hard not to be grateful to the opposition for their capitulation. Even on a work night.

Of course, their slaughtering in Munich showed how far away Basel still are from regularly challenging Europe’s big boys, and the chances are that they won’t often have such successful European campaigns in the coming years – but that is all the more reason to celebrate this season’s achievements and the establishment of a club hierarchy that provides both sustainability and entertainment.