Inside the Brain of a Teenage Soccer Genius

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ten Reasons to Pay Attention To the Axpo Super League

Switzerland is known for chocolate, watches, cheese, cuckoo clocks and various other things not including soccer. They co-hosted the EUROS in 2008 with Austria and are home to FIFA Headquarters as well as the current FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, but otherwise the nation is relatively quiet on the soccer front, especially when being compared to the soccer giants of England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

Young Swiss Champions
1) The Youth- The league is young and the youth academies are producing some of the most exciting players modern football has to see. The extent of the skill of Switzerland's youth became apparent in 2009 when their U17 team won the World Cup in Nigeria, defeating the host nations, who were favorites while the Swiss were featuring in the tournament for the first time in their history. One for one ain't a bad record. The U21 team who lost in the U21 European Championship to Spain this summer in Denmark featured some of the same players who were on the 2009 winning team. Midfielder Granit Xhaka played all but one game and was a key to the Swiss side's success while goalie Benjamin Siegrist, midfielder Pajtim Kasami and forward Nassim Ben Khalifa were named to the squad at the young ages of 18 and 19. After the U17 World Cup, the race was on to get the down-low on the talent Swiss academies had to offer. Grasshoppers FC sold forwards Nassim Ben Khalifa and Haris Seferovic within two years of the tournament while Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld and other top coaches around the nation were full of praise for the young players. Swiss youth academy success stories include FC Zurich, whose starlet Ricardo Rodriguez has made his full debut at the age of 19 and was recently sold to Wolfsburg in Germany, Grasshoppers FC whose Nassim Ben Khalifa has had a slower climb full of ups and downs but has also made a full national team debut and had a stint in the Budesliga, and FC Basel, whose strong youth helped them progress in the UEFA Champions League this season.
Basel's faithful following
2) The Fans- FC Basel fans rank in the top 20 most loyal fans in the world, topping the attendance records in Switzerland season after season. Small leagues and small teams rely on strong fanbases to bring in money since large TV revenue is unlikely, even if they qualify for UCL or EUROPA League football.
3) They Play Tactically Complex Soccer- My FC Basel fandom will become apparent as I discuss the tactical beauty of the highly organized defense in Swiss Soccer. Their knack for defense won their national team a victory against champions Spain in the 2010 World Cup (goalkeeper Diego Benaglio's record for consecutive clean sheets only being ruined by Chile in the next game of group play). The Swiss national team may not be known for its passing or fancy dribbling, but speed on the ball and speed of the ball can be found in the domestic league. Although some of the teams are quite... hacky and will not be winning any style awards in the foreseeable future, lots of the Swiss teams play with finesse and have skilled players who are thrilling to watch. Basel's (soon to be Bayern Munich's)Xherdan Shaqiri is small but uses his speed and quick feet to beat players on the wing and in the center of the pitch. To use Basel as an example again, their center midfielders Granit Xhaka, Benjamin Huggel, Adelson Cabral and sometimes Fabian Frei (although he has recently been playing on the wings) send fantastic through balls and transition back to help the defense religiously and with the speed of play (best example was against Manchester United in the UCL). FC Luzern manager Murat Yakin could be landing his side in Champions League football next year thanks to "hard work, good tactics and careful planning". 
Basel progressed at United's expense
4) They are Making an Impression on European Soccer- As I mentioned before, and will continue to mention because it makes me feel happy, FC Basel defeated Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League (HAHAHA). They made club history by progressing the farthest in the UCL so far, Swiss history by being the first team to progress to the knockout stages of the UCL, and UCL history by being the first to knock out Manchester United in the group stage since 2002. Young Boys Bern defeated Tottenham Hotspur on their home synthetic turf in the Europa League, but the Basel victory made the headlines. Basel also celebrated a win against AS Roma in the Estadio Olympico in last seasons campaign before falling just points short of knockout qualification at the end of the group stage.
5)  Winter Break- some may enjoy the chaos of the holiday schedule in the EPL and other top leagues, but the beauty of the Axpo Super League is that you, and the players you love and adore, get some time to rest from a demanding schedule during the season. Not only does this keep away injuries and the fatigue at the end of the season, but it keeps the players sharp so that from the restart in February until the last game in May the games are just as fast-paced as they were when the league kicks off in August. A two month break with no action from my favorite team? How is this possible? Well, you will still see your team play. Training camps are covered by team media and teams will play out four to six friendlies in their time away from the freezing winter temperatures of Switzerland. Training camps build team bonding and contrary to England and Spain, the break from competitive play and the fixtures against (usually) inferior teams gives youth players two chances to break into the first team each year rather than just one.
6) Diversity- Switzerland was not always known for its diversity. Many people envision the Swiss stereotype of Heidi the Swiss Mountain girl with her blonde hair and blue eyes, but nowadays it's a different story. A huge wave of immigrants from Kosovo are now establishing themselves on the soccer front. Players of Turkish descent are also featuring for clubs and for the national team. Switzerland's central location and language diversity makes it a popular destination for professionals out of Austria, Liechtenstein, Germany, Turkey and North Africa. Switzerland's linguistic diversity is also quite fascinating, many of the players speak four languages (English, German, French, Italian and lots now speak Albanian or some other Slavic language). I will say post-match interviews are hard to follow when they transition flawlessly from German to French...
Luzern's young manager Murat Yakin (L)
7) You Can't Buy Success Ala Man City- Teams in the Super League do not have Manchester City or Arsenal sums of money. They rely on strong youth systems and the circulation of players who are at either the start or the end of their career, or at their professional peak (although there are many who play out their entire careers successfully in the Axpo Super League, lots are looking to progress or to see more playing time after being benched in bigger leagues). FC Basel sits in first place and currently has nine young (under 23) youth academy products on the first team roster and four in their regular starting eleven. Grasshoppers FC in Zurich was the home club to four members of the U17 World Cup (including prodigious scoring-duo Nassim Ben Khalifa and Haris Seferovic) and currently boasts a roster rich in talented youth from their own academy as well as other academies around Switzerland. FC Luzern is currently in second place and has a home-grown team and manager, Murat Yakin, who has transformed the team who finished 6th (mid-table in the 10 team league) last season.
8) It's an Unpredictable League- aside from FC Basel winning the league three years in a row now, the league is constantly shifting. Up until these past two seasons, the EPL has had the same top four and predictable placement of the same clubs for nearly a decade and La Liga has been the Barcelona or Real Madrid show for the same amount of time. FC Luzern are looking to finish in 2nd place and were relegated in 2009, FC Zurich finished first and are now in 5th and Basel's dominance could be short-lived. Since the league is so small, teams are given more than just two fixtures per season, so a team could lose to one side 5-0 and then defeat them by the same scoreline weeks later.
9) Feel Smarter Than Your Friends- Someday this league will be a huge talking point. Anyone who had ever  made the mistake of asking me who my favorite team was probably didn't regret it after Basel knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League in December, making history on multiple levels. Up and coming players are starting to appear in the youth ranks for EPL teams (Pajtim Kasami has made his full debut for Fulham, Benjamin Siegrist at Aston Villa, Sead Harjovic at Arsenal and Frederic Veseli at Man United to name a few) and in the Bundesliga and Ligue A but the best youth can still be found in the Swiss Leagues. Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri have been hot transfer topics while Ricardo Rodriguez and Haris Seferovic made headlines with their transfers in 2011. My knowledge of Swiss soccer has won me multiple bets and I sure looked like a winner after I stood by Basel when they faced United. Don't be the one person at the local pub who doesn't know who Young Boys are or that Eren Derdiyok is of Turkish descent, you're better than that.
10) The Guys are Really Hot- If this is what it comes down to for you, there are many delicious male specimens in the Super League. It's shallow, yes but I can't help but make the observation. What makes Cristiano Ronaldo such a popular player? He's an Armani underwear model. David Beckham? His looks certainly won him a fan or two. How do you think a fourteen-year-old gets interested in a team in the first place? Well, yes I am a soccer nut and enjoy the quality of the team I have chosen, but the fact that half of their team could pass for (or are) male models is a large perk. Since a picture (or 5) is worth a thousand words, feast your eyes and let the hormones be the ultimate arbiter in this picking-and-choosing-of-a-favorite-soccer-team dilemma:
Granit Xhaka
Yann Sommer

Remo Freuler

Degen brothers

Steven Zuber

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