Glory Nights: Basel April 2013

Two weeks ago Hull City fans travelled to Huddersfield in a “bubble” imposed by West Yorkshire Police, an act from an authority that demonizes football fans through the restriction of movement, not dissimilar to the aim of the Football Spectators Act proposed by the Thatcher Government, whose reputation is currently being reinvented by rose-tinted recollections in the popular press in the past week; the polar opposite, for those lucky enough to have the opportunity, is to travel independently following your football club in Europe, venturing freely in a new city, before later socializing and joining a wider community in the stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur’s trip to Basel this week was a trip typical of the exciting European nights told in Glory Nights: Wankdorf to Wembley, with ticketing complications, a less than linear journey, friendly locals, cultural highlights and of course, drama only sport can deliver.

The English Premier League table doesn’t lie but the final tables in both the 2005-06 and last season stretched credibility when Spurs finished below Arsenal twice, despite looking much the better side for most of both terms, technically assured and in control of games in 05/06 and fluent, expansive and at times breathtaking in the last campaign. Points dropped through late goals were punished by a final day illness in 2006 and tactical errors in the final straight in 2012 allowed a West Brom goalkeeping performance so bad it defies belief, to have the final say. Ultimately those league placings twice cost Spurs Champions League Football, but strange how things work out; while the luck hasn’t been apparent on the pitch Tottenham’s European draws since 2006 have included a fixture at Sevilla that coincided with the city’s Semma Santa Festival, a tie against Hearts during the Edinburgh Festival, journeys to Belgium and Germany when the Christmas markets stalls were out and a trip to Udinese at the best time of the year to visit nearby Venice.

Spurs fans have had some great cultural bonuses in the last few years and coinciding with the Europa League Quarter-Final second leg, the city of Basel is currently hosting a Picasso retrospective built exclusively from the city’s public and private collections. Who knew? In the Kunstmusuem (a venue best spelt rather than pronounced when asking for directions), the exhibition shows Picasso the young talent, the storyteller, the freedom fighter and the master through etchings, sketches, portraits and layered paintings that show his versatility in styles through the ages.

Back in the last century Danny Baker once asked on his radio show where all the women were when bemoaning the all-male pubs he used to frequent; decades earlier the answer would have been posing for Picasso who, like guitars, “the poor”, fruit and flowers, are subjects used to develop art, from sharp lines to distortions, via the hidden faces David Hockney would later use on paintings of trees.

In a city that gives all its visitors free travel on buses and trams for the duration of their stay via a hotel booking, getting to the museum, which also houses pieces from Dali and Munch in its everyday collection, was easy enough, and public transport throughout Switzerland was smooth.

The journey to Basel started waiting for a night bus just before 3am alongside the urban foxes roaming the streets in North London on the day of the game; the match ticket, secured only after flights, annual leave and hotel were booked, after a mistake by the person who volunteered to order the tickets, was less than the size of a travel card and safely tucked inside the wallet.

Of the 1600 or so Spurs fans, only five others were on the 6am flight out of Heathrow that had more empty seats than passengers, with most others presumably flying directly into Basel, driving or on different flights. Heathrow was desolate with not even a shop open before 4.30am and a lone traveller could enjoy a lengthy period of silence in a public space like no other, outside of the Emirates or one of the remaining libraries yet to be culled by the coalition.

From Zurich Basel is just eighty minutes away on the train and the great views from the window followed by Picasso later in the morning, was a reminder that Michael Portillo is very fortunate to get paid to do these things.

Basel, on the border of France and Germany, is Switzerland’s third largest city and also a University town. And like previous footballing trips with Spurs to University towns including Bremen, Lyon, Twente and Udine, the locals were all very friendly and helpful. A multi-cultural city situated on the Rhine, there were shops, bars, restaurants and sights a plenty in Basel, with welcoming residents. Sociable and pleasant, a contrast to the sharp elbows and sharp knees Glenda Jackson this week noted we are now more used to at home.

Likewise, I witnessed real diligent work and kindness at Zurich Airport by Carepoint and experienced exceptional customer service several times in less than 30 hours in Switzerland including wonderful hotel staff, an owner of the restaurant who re-opened his kitchen longer to cook for me and friendly bar staff at a few local venues.

The European trips often have a habit of showing how things could be as was the case when contrasting run-of-the-mill service we are used to in the UK; while many are trying to white-wash the walls of the Thatcher legacy in a ten-day PR window that will culminate on Wednesday, largely at the State’s expense, the harsh realities of everyday life including zero-hours contracts and a de-motivated workforce with declining social mobility where workers rights continue to be under threat from the snowball she set rolling, are constant examples of the society that we created and where we could improve.

Little is cheap in the Basel, perhaps not surprisingly in a city whose name is shorthand for financiers as a piece of Banking regulation, although the bars buzzing full of locals on an early Thursday evening – in the old town but away from the English and Irish pubs where many Spurs fans had congregated – suggested that people still have the purchase power of the Swiss franc in their pocket.

Also, the price of the match ticket was relatively cheap, compared to the exorbitant prices of English Premier League at least. Basel’s stadium, St Jacob’s Park, looks smart from the outside, with the exterior the model Bayern Munich later used for their ground. Inside, unlike Tottenham’s last visit to Switzerland, in the Wankdorf in Berne, the pitch was all natural grass, if wet from the evenings downpours.

Basel (a) April 2013 015It was officially full to its 38,000 plus capacity, although there were small numbers of empty seats visible around the ground by the time the match kicked-off, shortly after 9pm local-time. The Basel fans provided a cauldron of noise throughout, with a stand full of banners, flags and scarves when the teams come out and all four sides jumping up and down when singing.

It is easy to generate atmosphere for big games and a European quarter-final is a massive match for both sides and as always at away games there was plenty of songs from travelling Spurs fans. The nature of football, and travelling fans who understand the culture and history of the club, mean that songs can start organically and don’t need conductors as false as the attempts to generate un-spontaneous chants at Wembley Stadium.

Unlike the fluency of last season, Spurs have relied more heavily on individual match-winning performances this term, often from Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe, all three of whom were out injured. Without the only three attacking match-winners left in the squad since Van der Vaart’s departure and considering FC Basel’s excellent home record as well as the first-leg when the away side got behind the Spurs defence several times with ease, Basel were surely favourites to progress.

But we started well, looking to play in the opposition half before taking the lead when Clint Dempsey capitalised on a defensive error. Mohamed Salah did the same for Basel to equalize with an excellent early finish after a sloppy Dembele pass put us in trouble. Red flares were instantly lit up behind the goal they were defending in the first half and it wasn’t long before the whole pitch was covered in smoke.

We pressed again before half-time with shots on target from Dembele, Naughton and Adebayor while Basel always looked capable of a break. Minutes into the second-half it was 2-1 as for the third successive game we let in a soft goal at a corner. As the game wore on Basel stayed compact, looking to close what had been a very open tie. The only threat was a Dawson header from a corner until a Huddlestone pass put in Dempsey who managed a shot on target the keeper should have saved but dribbled into the next behind him and in front of us.

For all the agony in football the ecstasy is pretty good. The goal wasn’t as decisive or even as unexpected as Dembele’s last minute strike in Lyon, but it was just as welcome. With eight minutes left of normal time the game was there for the taking now with the advantage of the away goals wiped out and the momentum with us.

It looked like it may come as a decent move led to Kyle Walker getting to the byline and his cut-back deflected across of the face of an open goal but too far in front for Dempsey to touch home. Just as we should have been looking to win the tie the ball seemed to hold up on the wet pitch and Dawson lost the ball in midfield letting Basel to be on the verge of getting behind our high line. Vertongen stuck out a foot rather than looking to defend properly and missed the ball and caught the man and was walking back down the tunnel.

We hung on for the remainder of stoppage time and then effectively for the whole of the extra half-hour, escaping twice in the first period when Friedel was twice beaten by shots bent in, before he gave the ball away cheaply several times in the second period, with long aimless balls that put us straight back under pressure.

As predicted by people queuing up beside me in the heavy rain before kick-off, it was going to penalties. And as predicted by anyone who has seen us miss countless penalties over the years, we got knocked-out. The one moment of hope came from Basel’s first kick, which looked just for a milli-second that Friedel might have saved before it hit the net. Huddlestone’s kick was better than his penalty at Bolton in the cup a few years ago but it was well saved and we were always going to be struggling as they scored their second.

The one-sided shoot-out, which finished 4-1, was typified by Adebayor’s effort, which was a bad as most of his other first touches during his time in the club. It was a miss as predictable as Bentley’s awful penalty at Wembley in the 2009 League Cup Final and again raises the question of when the club will cut their losses on highly paid players that don’t fit.

We played well on the night but the European campaign ends having won just four of twelve European games played this season. After Basel’s winning kick, a number Spurs players came over to acknowledge the travelling fans before, unusually for a European away game, we were let straight out of the ground, able to squeeze on a tram and get back into the centre of town, finding a pub that was open until 4am and had Dylan, The Stone Roses and New Order on the jukebox.

It was a European trip that nearly had all the elements of a classic Glory Night: the adventure, the place, the people and the football. And even in defeat there was an echo of Glory, as all the ties have had since we have entered the knock-out phase of the competition. Fifty years since we became the first British team to win a European trophy, we continue to challenge for cups on the continent and need to continue to do so.

MG

Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley, which covers Tottenham’s 2010/11 Champions League campaign and contains an epilogue following the 2012 season, is available to preview for free on Amazon and Smashwords.

Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley