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Football chiefs consider joint league with Austria

FC Basel are the only Swiss club managing to pull in large crowds

(Keystone)

Swiss football officials have confirmed reports that they are considering a proposed merger with the Austrian league.

The announcement follows a string of financial disasters at football clubs in both countries.

The idea of forming a joint "alpine league" for Austria and Switzerland was first voiced last month by the Austrian league's chief executive officer, Peter Westenthaler.

Although no concrete plans have yet been put forward by the Austrians, Swiss league president Jean François Kurz told swissinfo that the suggestion was being taken seriously.

"The league's committee is going to look at the issue at the end of this month and decide how to proceed," said Kurz. "After that, we will take it to the assembly of the various club presidents."

In the meantime, the Swiss league plans to carry out a feasibility study. But even if that comes out in favour of a merger, Kurz insists that the alpine league won't materialise overnight.

"We're talking about something that will be a fair way off, if it happens at all," reckoned Kurz. "Certainly, we won't see any changes before the 2005/06 season."

Euro 2008

At first glance, Swiss and Austrian football would appear to be on a high, with the two associations having recently won the right to host the European Championships in 2008.

As well as proving themselves worthy hosts, the Swiss have also been performing well on the pitch - the national team are currently leading their qualifying group for next year's European Championships in Portugal, while Swiss champions FC Basel have been stunning some of the sport's biggest names during an impressive run in this season's European Champions League.

Domestically, though, there has been much less to smile about.

Last summer FC Lugano, Lausanne and Sion were all evicted from the top division because of financial irregularities.

Lugano, who had been bankrolled with money embezzled by the club's late president, have since gone out of business.

Scandal

If the Swiss league had been hoping that the Lugano incident was a one-off, however, they were to be disappointed.

In November it emerged that the president of FC Wil had helped his club win promotion to the top division by embezzling some SFr48 million ($32 million) from UBS bank.

Even without such financial scandals, many of Switzerland's small and not-so-small clubs have found themselves hard hit by spiralling costs and unimpressive ticket sales.

Having reached an all-time low in 2000, Swiss football attendance figures did enjoy a dramatic surge in 2001, but this was virtually all down to the building of Basel's 33,000-seater St Jakob stadium.

Crowd trouble

While Basel now boast average league crowds of more than 26,000, their nearest rivals at Grasshoppers Zurich fail to average even 10,000. Smaller clubs in the top division do well to attract 4,000 spectators.

"Most of the clubs in Switzerland are having financial difficulties," Kurz admits. "So if these new proposals are of interest financially, then of course we will look into them."

As well as needing the support of both national leagues, the merger would have to be approved by European football's governing body, Uefa.

But that might be hard to come by. Following recent speculation that Scotland's two biggest clubs were interested in joining England's Premier League, Uefa officials insisted that teams should only play domestic competitions in their own territories.

On Friday, a Uefa spokeswoman told swissinfo that the organisation still held that opinion, although it would consider any serious proposals put forward by its members.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom

In brief

Switzerland's national football league says it will consider an Austrian proposal for a merged "alpine" league.

The league would involve the top clubs from both countries, although no details have yet been put forward.

Swiss league president Jean Francois Kurz says no changes are likely before 2005.

Any merger would need to be sanctioned by UEFA.

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