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Switzerland to Salford: Four days of groundhopping across Europe

Groundhopping across Europe

Switzerland is not the first place on most people’s list for groundhopping across Europe to watch soccer. Your attention likely goes to the country’s stunning scenery, picturesque towns and world-famous chocolate.  The soccer scene takes a back seat, understandably so.

Yet, with that in mind, I always found the Swiss Super league as one of Europe’s most underrated leagues. Specifically, this is in regards to the league’s fan culture. The standard of the sport is not the greatest to watch. However, when I groundhop around Europe, the standard on the pitch isn’t the most important thing to me. Instead, I much prefer the fan scene.

This is something I have been interested in for a while now. Trips to Germany highlight clubs like Lok Leipzig, BFC Dynamo and Fortuna Koln. In these, the expectation is not prime Barcelona with tiki-taka and mazy runs from Messi. Again, the focus is the fans.

The Swiss always perform in Europe off the pitch. Always, the supporterss commute in bulk to these games. For example, thousands of BSC Young Boys fans traveled to Old Trafford in 2018. Before then, Basel brought 3,200 supporters to Anfield in 2014. Separate from the large away followings, the home supporters are also up there with Europe’s ‘big boys’. Recently, FC Sion debuted a substantial tifo towards the end of the 2021/22 season. Plus, FC Zurich took tifos to its away game at Lausanne. More on those two teams soon.

Groundhopping across Europe: Switzerland

With cheap flights from Liverpool direct to Geneva, I decided to go over for a few days of football and sightseeing. I heard Switzerland was expensive. Colleagues drilled the rumors of $13 pints into me. First bar I stumbled on in the old town area was £6. Now, I know that is not exactly Eastern Europe prices. Of course, it would do for modern day prices. It was a Friday night, and I wanted a few quiet pints and nothing more. During the day I, groundhopped and took a train tour.

The following morning, I was up early. A train took me to Luzern, then Zurich for the soccer. A train pass in Switzerland, when booked in advance, was just over $50. This provides free train travel to anywhere in the country. Plus, it includes hidden extras. For instance, metros, cogwheels for mountain visits and museum passes come included.

After a few hours wandering round Luzern, I jumped on a train and headed to Zurich. Another city that is fantastic to wander around. Plus, the train ride through the Alps is brilliant. I arrived in Zurich and made my way to the FIFA Museum. Museums are not at the top of my visiting checklist. But, having secured a free ticket through a friend, it seemed appropriate to go. After spending an hour or so looking at the history of the World Cup and the FIFA gaming series, I made my way to the Stadion Letzigrund. I had wanted to visit this stadium for a few years. Stories of Liverpool fans traveling here in the 1970s permeated my mind.

Stadion Letzigrund and FC Zurich

I jumped on the local tram from the main station and followed the crowd towards the ground. Everywhere, lads wore jackets reading ‘FC ZURICH SUDKURVE.’ In the 150+ grounds visited in my life, I never saw so much uniformity by ultras in one jacket.

As we neared the ground, the tram came to a sudden and very abrupt stop. A message in German came over the speakers and the doors opened as everyone piled off. As I stepped off, there was a very loud bang and then cheering. Once I regained my focus, I looked around and found myself in the center of the corteo, or the march, to the stadium. I estimated the crowd to be five-thousand strong. The only way to approximate the number was to jump on a bench for a better vantage point.

I decided to join in. Clap when they clap, jump when they jump. A supporter revealed to me that this corteo was in remembrance of an important fan who recently passed away. We carried on up to the stadium and I decided to go in with them. I had bought my ticket for the Sudkurve standing section as I always try to do when away.

As stated previously, the sport is not overly important to me. Rather, the preference lies in the active support. Some call this an infringement on the loyal fanbase’s territory. My stance is that if I am trying to fit in without filming everything, then it is okay. I’ve been on the Yellow Wall at Dortmund, and Nordtribune with Hamburg. In just three days time, I will sit with Ultras Frente of Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford. So long as I followed their rules, I never stumble across a single issue.

I took my space on the terrace after grabbing a beer. An hour before kickoff, the stand packed in. The fans roared louder as the teams arrived for warm up. Then, the boisterous nature expanded as away fans of ST Gallen poured into their end. Fans lit Pyro as ‘scheiss St Gallen’ rung round the Letzigrund. The teams headed in and then a huge banner covering the whole of our section was passed back to where I was stood. Covered by the tifo, I had no idea what it represented. After the match, I learned it honored the fan who passed. The section fell silent with the exception of crackling flares to pay tribute.

The game started and, again, more pyro. Then more. And then even more. The Sudkurve bounced, and I bounced with it. Arm in arm with people I had no affiliation with or will ever see again my life.

That is the beauty of football.

The game passed by, but with how far away I sat, the players and moments blurred by. Again, not the worst thing in the world. At the time, FC Zurich sat atop the table in search of its first title in a few good years. Disappointingly, a St Gallen upset was on the cards. The away team won 3-0. Even at 3-0 down the fans kept the atmosphere up. The whistle went and the players timidly made their way to us.

This always fascinates me with Ultras when I am groundhopping around Europe. The players come so close to the supporters and take criticism in the face. We do not generally see that in the United Kingdom. They got grilled and the fans erupted into support for them. I made my way back to the main station and headed back to Geneva. This game went straight into my top-five atmospheres.

FC Zurich 0-3 St Gallen. March 12. Stadion Letzigrund.

The other side of Switzerland

Lausanne is a sleepy little town about an hour or so away from Geneva across the lake. It is a nice train ride as well, having found out after dozing off on this section the day before.

I arrived in Lausanne and walked down to the lake for breakfast. The town itself is not one of Switzerland’s busiest areas. Instead, the lake is beautiful and tranquil. Perfect for a Sunday morning before soccer. After an hour or so, I made my way back to into the town center and headed up the Stade De La Tuiliere on the bus. It was Lausanne Sport vs Young Boys Bern. Lausanne sat in a position dangerously close to the bottom. On the other hand, Young Boys competed at the top with FC Zurich.

Already, numerous YBB fans arrived in the center of Lausanne. I carried on up to the stadium after passing them in the bus. The panic of this game dates back three weeks prior to my arrival in the country. LS ultras launched fireworks that landed near the away goalie. Naturally, he went down as if fans shot him, and the game stopped. Despite the calm lakeside town, more pyro ensued. The following game still featured an active ultras scene. Behind the scenes, there was an active investigation against Lausanne supporters.

I refreshed my pages each day to make sure nothing went awry. In fact, I made contact with the club via Twitter to learn the proceedings. A suspended ban came down for Lausanne fans. I was glad to hear it.

The bus pulled in and what appeared to be a shopping center greeted me. Instead, it was the Stade De La Tuiliere. It is not among the best starts for those used to groundhopping in Europe. The ground is a fairly new one for Lausanne . With LS not being among Switzerland’s elite sides, I did not arrive with wild expectations, particularly given the recent issues with the Ultras Kop Sud. I made a pit stop for some beers at a bar outside the ground. Despite the game nearing, the stadium did not fill up outside and the bar remained relatively empty. Not something I was generally accustomed to, even though it yielded easier service.

I made my way to the entrance of my ticket, which was round the other side of the ground. As I turned the corner I was met with riot police I would expect at the Belgrade Derby, not Lausanne Sport. I had my ticket scanned and was patted down by one “robocop.” I made my way forward and officials patted me down again. Again, I moved forward and had my ticket rechecked and searched again. Never before had an arrival process turned into so many separate frisks.

I grabbed a beer and took up a spot on the Kop Sud. I could have brought every person I had spoken to in my 26 years and would still have space on the terrace. Not a good sign. For what it is worth, the 200 or so ultras tried to get the ground going. Fair dues, they made strong noise for the team given the circumstances.  Young Boys brought around three thousand fans, filling out their standing sector and created more yellow dotted around the ground nearby. The game again passed by before me. This rare occasion saw the football outdo the support.

I left the stadium and headed back to Geneva for my flight in order to prepare for the big one, Manchester United away in the Champions League with the Ultras of Atletico Madrid.

Lausanne Sport 2-2 BSC Young Boys. March 13. Stade De La Tuiliere.

Ultras Frente at Old Trafford in the Champions League

Out of respect to the ultras scene and the related secretiveness and refusal to allow access to most journalists, I wont be using names for this. I had known a few of the Ultras Frente lads for a few years now. Originally, I met them through Instagram. We exchanged a few messages before I formally met them in 2019. I visited Spain and managed to see an away game with these lads as part of my travels groundhopping in Europe.

Then, the draw for the UEFA Champions League afforded me the perfect opportunity. Manchester United vs. Atletico Madrid. The texts flooded in from the lads. I knew they booked their flights and I could meet up with them in Manchester. I never expected to get a ticket into that game. Then, I received the golden text message from my main friend within the group. ‘Hola mate, I cannot travel to Manchester. Would you like my ticket for this. You will travel with [member of group] and the rest of the lads’. I felt like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the golden ticket.

The day of the game arrived. Half-day in work and then straight to Manchester to meet them all. I had been told that 3,200 were travelling. Friends from Roma, Dusseldorf and Ruch Chorzow attended the game. Undoubtedly, this is a day to remember.

I met the lads I knew in Manchester city center and showed them where to eat and where to get cheap ale from. Afterwards, we made our way to the main square in Manchester. Here, the away fans in Europe gather before the game. Leading 20 Ultras through Manchester was an experience I won’t soon forget. We turned the corner to three-thousand Atleti fans greeting us.

A police officer came up to me and took the beer out of my hand and explained you cannot drink on the streets in Manchester. I apologized and said I would pass the message on to the other.

‘What are you doing here with these lot with your accent?’ the officer asked. I told him they were my mates and I was their guest. He told me to behave and shoved me on the way. Word rapidly spread of a Liverpool fan with them as they followed us through the crowd and kept a close eye on us and me. We carried on drinking and everyone was introducing themselves to me and showing respect because I was with them against United.

The police waded in and ushered us all away from the bars to make our way to the stadium. My mate grabbed me and ushered me to the front of the corteo, surrounded by the police escort. The Police escort proved about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Pockets of confrontation popped up all the way to Old Trafford. Over three-thousand away fans behind me, and I was at the front. A Liverpool supporter leading the Atleti line. I made my way to a European away game against the team I hated the most with one of Europe’s most-feared ultras groups.

Arrival at Old Trafford

We got closer to the ground and were penned into the usual bus parking area before police allowed us in. More confrontation happened outside, and United fans were on their toes. Again, this may be debated. However, I only report what I saw with my eyes.

We entered the stadium and took our space at the front. The first ten rows were left open. Even though our tickets pegged us to the back, we found ourselves at the front of the away stand. A mutual understanding between the casual fans and their Ultras. I took a step back and stood on row three. I could see my mate looking for me but I had stayed back with one of the lads I knew too. He marched up grabbed me and screamed ‘You stand here at the front. You hate these the most.’ I was happy to oblige. It was all surreal.

The Atleti fans got louder and louder as kick off neared. The game kicked off but I had no focus on this game. The surrounding situation simply left me starstruck. Atleti scored, disallowed. Then they scored again just before half time. Bedlam. Sheer bedlam. I have been in Anfield when Liverpool have scored some dramatic goals. But, that release watching the header go in was up there with the greatest. I had no love with Atletico Madrid like what these lads do. They dedicated their lives to them, dedicated tattoos to them and lost friends along their journey. I was hugging random Spaniards and ended up stood on the divide behind the United fans.

The game carried on and then it was full time. The whole away end bouncing to ATLETI! ATLETI! We were kept in for an hour. Not that it mattered. We bounced and sang the hour away. Atleti were through to the next round. I couldn’t have been more grateful to the Frente lads and hope that one day I can repay the favor.

Manchester United 0-1 Atletico Madrid. March 15. Old Trafford.

From the Swiss alps to Salford in a few days time, groundhopping across Europe is any fan’s dream. It’s mad what footy can do to us.

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