Footballers prepare for kick-off

Will Basel's supporters still be celebrating in May? Keystone Archive

The Winter Olympics may still be underway but this weekend sees Switzerland's footballers coming out of their annual hibernation.

This content was published on February 22, 2002 - 17:07

The Swiss league format includes one of the longest winter breaks in western Europe with the players now preparing for their first domestic action in more than two months.

But it's not just the calendar that's peculiar.

As part of a system unique to Switzerland, the country's top eight teams will return to the fray this weekend with just half of the points that they amassed during the autumn months.

Basel in front

Designed to make the championship round more exciting, the quirky rule leaves current league leaders Basel with just a three point lead over title rivals Lugano and Grasshoppers Zurich.

Basel, managed by Christian Gross, begin the second half of their championship campaign away to Lugano on Sunday. Grasshoppers' new coach, Marcel Koller, faces an interesting first match in charge with his Zurich side set to take on St Gallen - the team he left during the winter break.

As well as their new coach, Grasshoppers have brought in a new goalkeeper in the shape of former Sion player Fabrice Borer, and are seen as Basel's strongest challengers.

It will be interesting to see if Lugano can keep up the pace having sold last season's top scorer Christian Gimenez, Brazilian midfielder Caico and Swiss internationals Ludovic Magnin and Badile Lubamba.

St Gallen remain outsiders for the title as do Servette Geneva, who on Tuesday lost 3-0 to Valencia in the first leg of their UEFA Cup fourth round tie. Barring a major upset in Thursday's second leg, the Genevan side are soon likely to be concentrating solely on domestic matters.

No fears for top eight

In another unusual aspect to Switzerland's championship round, none of the eight teams involved will have to worry about relegation. With four teams having already dropped out of contention before the winter break, the remaining sides can be divided into those bidding for the title and those building for the future.

The latter group is likely to involve FC Zurich, Bern Young Boys and FC Sion all of whom made bright starts last summer before gradually fading away.

While the title chase and the battle for European places is expected to dominate the sporting headlines, much attention will continue to focus on financial concerns off the pitch.

Switzerland may have a unique league format but the money worries facing some of its smaller clubs are no different than in the rest of Europe.

With Lucerne, Lausanne, Sion, Aarau and Neuchatel Xamax all struggling to pay their way, the return of the supporters (and their ticket money) can hardly come soon enough.

swissinfo with agencies

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