Greetings from surprisingly sunny Switzerland. I’m here in Basel for the Switzerland vs. Ireland Euro 2004 qualifying match. Or not, but more of that later…
Basel (And for the record, it’s pronounced “BA-zil” because it’s a German-speaking town, not “BAAL”. That would be like calling London “Londres”) is a very pretty town, lots of short buildings with shuttered windows, blended with unobtrusive modernity. The airport is tiny, like a frontier outpost. Hardly surprising as it also serves as the airport for Mulhouse in France and Freiburg in Germany. It was ill-equipped to deal with the 5,000 or so Irish fans which descended into town for the game.
As with Amsterdam, the roads and pavements blend into one in the city centre due to the (admittedly excellent) tram network. Never mind looking left or right, crossing the road in Basel requires a 360° view.
With regards to food, I avoided the fondue-laden tourist traps to try the local restaurants. Swiss meals weren’t anything to email home about. The desserts however were BRUTAL. This isn’t a place to visit if you’re dieting. You’d probably put on pounds just looking at the fresh cream and rich chocolate cakes.
I had hoped to visit the Jean Cocteau Museum here (Pretentious? Moi?) but it was shut for the duration of my stay. The curators obviously not equating football fans with any interest in 20th century avant-garde surrealism. Instead, I took in the Cartoon and Caricature Museum, which happened to be running an excellent exhibition on the work of Arnold Roth of The New Yorker fame. When you see cartoons in magazines, they look like they were scribbled up in minutes. It’s only when you view them up close do you realise the penmanship and effort that goes into them.
St. Jakobs stadium
The St. Jakobs stadium looks great (designed by Herzog & de Meuron of Tate Modern fame), but it only holds 30,000. The Irish ticket allocation was 3,000, of which about 1,400 disgracefully went to corporate sponsors, travel companies and “the football family”, leaving just 1,600 for genuine paying fans. The London supporters club, which had about 90 members intending to come to Basel, optimistically hope to get about 30-40 tickets. In the end we allocated 9 – nine! – tickets. Most fans like myself booked flights and hotels months in advance in expectation of getting one only to be let down. Outside the ground, the touts (who were all English, go figger) were looking for EUR300 (approx. GBP210) for a ticket.
And so I was resigned to missing the game. The Irish pub in Basel, Paddy O’Brien’s, was the natural base for the visiting Irish support, some of whom had been here since Wednesday. It had big screens and the Rugby World Cup in English. It was heaving with fans come match time, it also had rip-off prices. At CHF8 (about GBP4) a pint , nearly twice the rate elsewhere. So many of us took to one of the other local bars and converted it to Éireann’s cause for the day. Many Swiss fans (also missing out on tickets) joined in too to support their country.
I shouted myself hoarse as if I was actually at the match. Baslers looked perplexed when we chanted “Kea-no! Kea-no!” in support of Robbie Keane. They were probably wondering why we were shouting “Cinema! Cinema!” In the end, it was all in vain. Ireland were woeful and Switzerland ran out easy 2-0 winners to qualify for the finals in Portugal next year. But as with any Ireland match, there was no trouble and we happily mixed with the locals for the rest of the night.
I blame myself for Ireland’s failure. I’ve been to every game in the qualifying tournament apart from three matches, these were co-incidentally also the only three Ireland lost. I had come all the way to Basel only to miss out on getting a result. Still, I’ve always said that football was an excuse to travel, not vice versa.
I still enjoyed the trip immensely and acquitted myself admirably in the language front. The Swiss have a schizophrenic attitude when it comes to speaking. To each other, they talk a baffling Swiss-German which sounds Scandinavian to the un-trained ear. However, when I speak to them, they reply in clear hochdeutsche (High German, the equivalent of Queen’s English). Make your mind up, folks.
Hopp Schweiiz! (Up Switzerland!)
(photos by Andre)