The Inside Story: Why FC Basel fans are up in arms about the club's tie-up with India's Chennai City FC
Written by: Neelav Chakravarti
In protest, the Muttenzerkurve left the stands of St. Jakob Park for a period of time in the side's recent encounter against FC St. Gallen.
On 6th February, on the back of Minerva Punjab's tie-up with Bundesliga outfit Borussia Monchengladbach, the Indian football fraternity received another boost in the form of FC Basel. The Swiss side and Chennai City announced a partnership, with the Europeans also buying a 26% stake in the I-League outfit, at a reported cost of around €1m.
The move could be a good thing for football in this country in the long run. But currently, the Basel board is on the receiving end of some flak from their fans, especially the ultras.
In their recent Swiss Super League fixture at home to FC St. Gallen, the diehard fans or rather the Muttenzerkurve left the stands at St. Jakob Park after kick-off, leaving banners protesting against the partnership and the club’s overseas expansion. The ultras came back after the first half, but this incident was reportedly one-of-its-kind in Switzerland.
Usually, fans leave for 10-15 minutes, but this was something different. The fans have never been shy to voice their opinion about decisions made by the club. The banners weren’t against Indian football or Chennai City; they were rather against the club’s strategy and leadership and also about the side’s future.
FC Basel ultras leave their seats after kick-off against St. Gallen
In July 2017, Bernhard Burgener took over the club as its new chairman. One of the fundamental promises made by him was to make the side a more locally-oriented club with more players from Basel. He also stated that he wanted the outfit to have more international partnerships with top clubs. But, since his arrival, the team's performance hasn't been upto the mark.
To add to the fans' fury, the club began to invest more in other ventures like eSports, which wasn’t a priority earlier under the previous management. In contrast, the fan base, especially the ultras, want the money to be directed into the first-team instead. To top it all, the club didn’t win the 2017-18 league title, missing out on the silverware for the first time in eight years, coming second behind Young Boys.
Speaking exclusively to Khel Now, football scout and Switzerland’s co-head of research for Football Manager Oliver Zesiger said, “The fans have protested against the eSports initiative and the general marketing of the club on multiple occasions. The basis of those protests was always that the management should invest more into its core business, which is football. They also criticized the contradiction between the promise of a more local club and the worldwide engagement.”
The main crux of the issue, is if majority of the RotBlau fans are against the club’s tie-up with I-League side Chennai City? When asked about this Zesiger quipped, “This is tough to say. Clearly, the majority of ultras are against the tie-up.”
Swiss publication Basler Zeitung conducted a survey on 11th February, trying to gauge the opinion of fans on the subject. The two options were “the club needs additional income” and “the club needs to concentrate on its core business”. 69.5% chose the latter, while 30.5% went for the former. This shows that around two-thirds of the newspaper’s readers, who are mainly locals, are against the club’s recent ventures.
The supporters of this move are of the opinion that it could be beneficial in the future. As Basel are currently not in the Champions League, the club isn't receiving any UCL participation money and a reduction in jersey sales, means that the club are in the red right now. But, investing in the huge Indian football market so early, could potentially reap benefits in the forseeable future.
On the flip side, many others feel that this investment is useless, as big clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United haven't made similar investments, where profit is less and risk is high. Moreover, the fans were promised partnerships with top clubs, which contradicts with this tie-up in India.
The partnership primarily revolves around infrastructure and youth development expertise
According to Tilman Pauls (Sports editor of Basler Zeitung), "I think this is a smart investment. It does not cost much, maybe the club will benefit from this engagement in India someday. Also, the board wants Basel to have more international relations. It is not actually about finding players in India. With prices low there, the club is probably hoping, the market will explode someday."
He further added, "€1m is not much. They signed a 17-year-old who has not played a minute, but cost €1.5m. Money is not the main problem. It is the general direction of the club. Basel was always in touch with their fans. It has changed now with the new president."
It is also a general fear amongst the fans that the club is drifting away from them. The fans want to be close to the club, but they now see the president investing in such ventures, while the team is struggling domestically.
Also, the timing of the partnership between the European club and the Indian outfit was criticised. While, the fans want reinforcement in the team, the club has invested in an unknown system. Meanwhile, the club CEO has already revealed that this investment won’t have any effect on the side’s transfer budget.
According to Andreas Aeschlimann, CEO and Founder of the RotBlau app (an unofficial FC Basel fans’ application for iOS and Android), “The partnership is one of the many things which are being discussed controversially.” He also added, “Most of the people here feel that the investment will not benefit the club.”
From a neutral point of view, the reaction of Basel fans is understandable, as Indian football is still way behind and the country is still a ‘sleeping giant’. For the Swiss, the amount invested might not be a lot, but for an I-League club, it is an entire year’s budget.
Also, many of the fans reportedly feel that this venture is all about making money, which has been vehemently denied by the club’s board. The fans' anger has been further fuelled by Chennai's partnership with Finnish club JS Hercules.
In 2017, both the sides had entered into a contract regarding the development of infrastructure and players in India, which is supposed to continue until 2022. But currently, the contract has informally expired. Also, the club sent three players including Michael Soosairaj to Finland. The Finish coaches found their level of fitness to be below the standard necessary. All this has been recently highlighted by the Swiss media. Also, Hercules owner Mikko Perala recently revealed in an interview with BZ Basel that the club are poor in cooperation.
While the Basel fans are against the move, Chennai City could soon be reaping the partnership's benefits. Regarding this, CCFC co-owner R Krishnakumar said, "We have heard about the recent fan protests in Switzerland, but it's not going to affect the tie-up. Also, we just received a bulk order of around 700 Chennai City jerseys from someone residing in Basel."
He further stated, "This partnership's main aim is for infrastructural development and expertise. With their help, we are going to develop a proper academy for the youth."
The recent developments in Switzerland, haven't affected the partnership between the two clubs. Both the parties seem quite serious about the tie-up. Basel will obviously hope to gain profits from an unexplored market like India in the future, while Chennai aim to develop as a club with the help of this European investment.
Published: Tue Feb 19, 2019 11:43 AM IST