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First lady of football shares her passion

Gigi Oeri is the president and financial backer of FC Basel

(Keystone)

Gisela "Gigi" Oeri, president of top Swiss football club, FC Basel, has pledged to fight hooliganism and wants her team to win back the champions' title.

The "First Lady" of a Swiss football team tells swissinfo about her passion for the game as well as for teddy bears and dolls' houses.

Oeri, the majority shareholder of FC Basel, was named president of the club in May 2006 but plays down the significance of her role.

Formerly club vice-president, she says the new position means she has to attend many meetings with her counterparts and the Swiss Football Association.

As for her style of leadership, Oeri believes in close cooperation with the team manager Christian Gross, a chief scout and a legal adviser. She says it makes no sense to push for the signing of a favourite player if the coach doesn't agree or if it is financially too risky.

swissinfo: What do FC Basel mean to you: a hobby, a passion, family...?

Gigi Oeri: It's primarily a full-time job (laughs), and of course it's a hobby, a passion and something like a family.

My working day is almost exclusively devoted to the activities of FC Basel. But I also run museums, a fitness club and have a family. It is difficult sometimes to find the time for them all.

swissinfo: How did you get involved in football in the first place?

G.O.: As a former gymnast I introduced the element of sport into my husband's family. The Oeri family had until then focused its activities on arts and culture.

It was as if the family had been waiting for me to get them into sport. As you may know, here in Basel football has been considered a part of culture ever since the glorious days of the 1960s and early 1970s with the simultaneous success of the local theatre and the football club.

swissinfo: What does it feel like to be the only woman in a male-dominated business like football?

G.O.: This is a question that often crops up and unfortunately there have not been any role models in my position before. But I think nowadays it should be common knowledge that blonde women are not by definition brainless and stupid.

Being a woman is often an advantage. Most people treat me with more respect and men in particular behave in a more civilised manner when sitting at a table with a woman.

I'm a woman who knows a thing or two about football. But it is not a gender issue for me.

swissinfo: You also have a dolls' museum with a renowned collection of teddy bears in Basel. What is behind the somewhat unusual combination?

G.O.: It's the result of my passionate interest in dolls. I used to visit flea markets in search of old dolls' houses that I restored. Over the years the collection had grown so much that it became difficult to store the treasures properly. I took the plunge when I opened the museum in the heart of Basel.

I try to keep the activities of president of a football club and museum owner apart. But when you look around carefully you will also find doll-sized footballers made of felt and they are collector's items.

swissinfo: You will hardly have too many good memories of last year's football season. What went wrong?

G.O.: The last match of the season was indeed the low point of the season. We lost the title and there was crowd trouble.

But not everything was bad last season. We made it to the quarter-finals of the Uefa cup competition. How many other Swiss teams can claim a similar achievement?

swissinfo: How do you in Basel hope to resolve your problems with hooligans?

G.O.: We are doing our utmost to crack down on troublemakers. It was not fair to punish the club – two matches had to be played behind closed gates – without officially being found guilty.

Hooliganism is part and parcel of football, as unpleasant as that might be. It would be wrong to expect Basel to resolve this problem alone.

We are very much in favour of tightening the law to prevent violence, in particular the setting up of a database in order to keep hooligans away from the sport stadiums. Basel put forward such a measure four years ago but was told it was not feasible to introduce it because of data protection rules.

swissinfo: FC Basel are arguably the most successful Swiss football club in recent years, but why have they failed to make an impact at European level?

G.O.: The results show that we can keep up with other teams in Europe. But there are limits for a Swiss club which are impossible to get beyond. It's a question of finances, revenues, the organisation and possibly even of club management.

Swiss football compares favourably with neighbouring Austria, but countries like Spain, England or Italy will always remain out of reach for us.

swissinfo: You were born in Germany and have been living in Switzerland for a long time. Which team did you support during the World Cup?

G.O.: I think my heart is big enough for both Germany and Switzerland. As long as they don't have to play each other that's fine by me (laughs).

I felt sorry for Switzerland crashing out of the competition so unceremoniously in the penalty shoot-out against Ukraine. But I told my German friends not to be too harsh with the Swiss. All three who missed from the penalty spot are playing for clubs in the German Bundesliga.

I went to see many matches of the tournament and was extremely impressed by the organisation of the whole event.

I hope Switzerland and Austria as joint organisers can pull off a similar feat when they host the European Championships in 2008. It would be huge success if they could come close to the standards of Germany.

swissinfo-interview: Urs Geiser in Basel

In brief

FC Basel are arguably the most successful Swiss football club, despite losing the title last season to FC Zurich. They have won three titles since 2003 and played several times in the group stage of the Champions League in Europe.

In May 2006 Oeri, who has invested several million francs in FC Basel, became the first woman to become president of a top division Swiss football club.

Oeri is one of only a handful of women in the football business. Another notable is Karren Brady, chief executive of Birmingham City in England.

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Key facts

Gisela "Gigi" Oeri (51) grew up in Schopfheim, southern Germany, near the Swiss border. She trained as a physiotherapist and used to be a competitive gymnast.
She is married to Andreas Oeri, whose family control a voting majority in the Roche pharmaceutical concern.
She is considered one of the richest Swiss residents.
Gigi Oeri has been on the board of FC Basel since 1999, becoming vice-president before assuming the presidency in May 2006. She is the majority shareholder in FC Basel.
She opened the Dolls' House Museum housing Europe's biggest collection of teddy bears in Basel in 1998. Oeri is also active as film producer.

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