In November 1996, Grasshopper Club Zurich flew to Scotland to take on Glasgow Rangers in the Champions’ League group stage, in a game that I watched from the stands. Led by Swiss icon Kubilay Turkyilmaz, Grasshoppers were looking for all three points as they attempted to qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament. Having hammered Rangers 3-0 a few months earlier, the team were confident that they could get the result but found themselves taking on a Rangers side with the bit between their teeth who were eager to forget what had been a terrible group stage (they had lost their first 4 games) and get a vital win on home soil. In a highly competitive match, Rangers ran out 2-1 winners with Ally McCoist scoring a brace whilst Andy Goram performed miracles in goal to deny Grasshoppers. Despite the defeat, both sets of fans were impressed by the way Grasshoppers performed that night and would have been forgiven for thinking that they would be a regular competitor in the Champions League going forward.
Fast forward 23 years and Grasshoppers are at their lowest ebb following relegation from the Swiss Super League, ending their 68-year stay. Switzerland’s most successful club with 27 titles could no longer dream of electric Champions League nights against Europe’s elite. Instead they are facing up to an uncertain future, one that is less of a dream and more like a nightmare. Financial mismanagement since 2003 and a plethora of changes in the boardroom have contributed to Grasshoppers current situation, one that doesn’t look to be resolving any time soon. In the last 15 years, the Zurich club have had 13 coaches and 8 different presidents and have effectively been homeless after their Hardturm ground closed in 2007. After its demolition in 2008, the proposed plans for the new stadium got trapped in a never-ending tug of war between those politically motivated by visions of grandeur and those motivated by money. Finally, after a decade of frustration for the club and its fans, the city of Zurich approved the construction of the new ground.
The lack of a place to call home has hurt Grasshoppers deeply. Forced to play at the Letzigrund athletics stadium, the home of rivals FC Zurich has been tough on the club in terms of trying to connect with their fans but more importantly financially with little revenue coming in because of the ground share at the smaller stadium. The construction of a new ground should solve those issues but it’s not as if that project will be easy to get done, despite it being green lit. Grasshoppers only just managed to get approvals to proceed winning a close 53.8% of the vote meaning that there is still plenty of local distain for the project that could derail it.
On the field, Grasshoppers have struggled too. Despite finishing 2nd in the league and winning the Swiss Cup in 2013, they have failed to pull together a consistent challenge leaving the fans to wonder if the club will ever return to its dominant position it once held in the 70’s and 80’s. Their last title 15 years ago seems like an eternity. A failure to unearth the next Kubilay or develop an effective youth progression program has resulted in a mediocre team on the pitch. Added into this a lack of funds to purchase new players and a ground to attract them in the first place, it was always going to be a difficult slog regardless of the manager. But with uncertainty in the boardroom also comes indecision about how the club should be run, its playing style and who should be enforcing that. That led to some baffling appointments as manager/head coach including the hiring of Tomislav Stipic in March of this year. Starring relegation in the face, Stipic was brought in to replace Thorsten Fink much to the disbelief of the fans as Stipic’s resume hardly screamed success. A lack of experience at a top flight team and two relegations at lower league sides in Germany left many wondering how this guy would save them. In the end he lasted only 6 games and was sacked after failing to win any of them. Uli Forte, who led the club in that 2013 season returned much to the protest of the fans who were still bitter about the nature of his departure six years before, but he couldn’t turn around the club’s fortunes with Grasshoppers eventually relegated in early May. He has agreed to stay on as the club looks to bounce back and gain immediate promotion.
The demise of Grasshopper is a startling warning to all the other clubs in the Swiss Super League that even the mighty can fall. Other European leagues have witness similar iconic clubs fall from grace, most notably Glasgow Rangers who suffered a financial meltdown which led to administration and relegation to Scotland lowest tier and AEK Athens who dropped down in Greece following similar financial difficulties. Financial issues tend to be the leading cause of these demises and things may only get worse in the future as teams spend beyond their means with the hope of gaining quick successes both domestically and in Europe. UEFA’s introduction of their financial fair play rules was a vain effort to curb this overspending but has faced fierce criticism of late as Europe’s elite have found clever ways to bypass or take advantage of the federations inability to accurately track and enforce its rules. As a result, the gap between the elite and the chasing pack widens reducing the likeliness of one of them fielding a team capable of going all the way and lifting one of the major trophies like the Champions League. For Grasshoppers, the focus is not to playing in Europe’s most prestigious club competition again but simply to recover. The road to recovery can be a long and treacherous as Rangers and AEK can attest to, one filled with more than a few bumps. But it’s a necessary journey that the club must take if they are to regain what many see as their rightful position back in the Swiss Super League.