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Football season puts focus on grassroots level

Youngsters are taking up football in increasing numbers

(Keystone)

The Swiss football season kicks off on Wednesday with the game's authorities struggling to accommodate a growing tide of youngsters looking to emulate the stars.

The Swiss Football Association (SFA) is launching a number of initiatives this year to stimulate the sport at the grassroots level with extra funding for coaches and facilities.

Switzerland co-hosts the next European championships in 2008 and football fever is rising following the success of the international team in this year's World Cup and in Euro 2004.

Last year a record number of 134,107 juniors – an increase of 2,469 on 2004 - were officially enrolled at 1,414 SFA-registered clubs. The SFA expects a further increase of around 20,000 to 25,000 players of all ages in the next two years.

The SFA has launched a scheme to find new coaches for clubs that are bursting at the seams with ever lengthening waiting lists. This will be followed later this year by projects to improve skills in the 7-10 age group, advise clubs on how to organise festivals and to promote football in schools.

"It is a big challenge to find more volunteer coaches and there is also a lack of pitches, especially in urban areas," SFA technical director Hansruedi Hasler told swissinfo.

"With Euro 2008 around the corner there will be more and more kids wanting to join clubs so the problems will increase. But this is an interesting period for our sponsors so we hope we can find money more easily to run these projects."

Integration

Hasler commented that as many of these youngsters were from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds football was a useful instrument for their integration.

Many of those children will be dreaming of emulating the exploits of the international team, which reached the last 16 of the World Cup in Germany, or players from the Swiss leagues.

Current Super League champions FC Zurich launch their title defence against newly promoted FC Lucerne on Wednesday night.

The Zurich side snatched the crown off FC Basel in the dying seconds of injury time when the two sides met on the final day of the season in a tense encounter in May.

And this season promises one of the most open in years with Grasshoppers of Zurich and Bern side Young Boys also among the favourites.

Exodus

The close season saw the usual exodus of players leaving for foreign shores with Basel losing experienced international goalkeeper Pascal Zuberbühler, midfield dynamo David Degen and Argentine playmaker Matias Delgado.

At the beginning of last season, Hasler revealed to swissinfo his worries that foreign teams were snatching away too many young Swiss stars.

Another problem to be overcome is the worrying growth of hooliganism in Switzerland that marred the spectacular climax to last season after the match between FC Zurich and Basel. As a result, Basel will have to play their first two home games behind closed doors.

New measures imposed by the Swiss Football League (SFL) starting on Wednesday oblige away teams to collect personal details of visiting fans and provide someone from the club to accompany them.

The League also hopes an anti-violence campaign and mobile cameras will prevent further outbursts of violent disorder.

But, despite the challenges facing the game in Switzerland, football has never been more popular in a country viewed as being one of the sport's minnows.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Key facts

Opening day fixtures for the 2006/7 season:

Aarau vs Thun
Young Boys vs Basel
Grasshoppers vs Sion
Schaffhausen vs St Gallen
Lucerne vs Zurich

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In brief

SFA figures show that there were 228,464 licensed players of all ages in Switzerland (+ 2,837) in 2005. That figure includes 134,107 juniors, a rise of 2,469. Last year 249 extra teams were created, boosting the total to 12,887 in 1,414 clubs.

According to the English Football Association website, there are about seven million players, 37,500 clubs including 9,000 youth clubs, 30,000 qualified coaches and 45,000 pitches in England.

Since 2004, Switzerland has received SFr1 million ($800,000) from European football's governing body Uefa to build new pitches. The SFA is also offering an extra SFr20,000 per pitch.

Basel's visit to Young Boys and Grasshoppers' home match against Sion will be the first pay-per-view games to be shown on Swiss television. The Pay-TV deal netted the SFL about SFr 13 million, around double the previous revenue.

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