On and off the pitch, Grasshoppers Zurich are facing a battle to survive

By Brian Homewood in Berne
Grasshopper Zurich, the team based on FIFA’s doorstep and in one of Europe’s richest cities, have plunged into a financial crisis which could see them drop down to the third division at the end of the season.

Switzerland’s most successful club, with 27 league and 18 domestic cup titles, are estimated to be running debts of at least £5.8 million and £11.6 million – the club themselves have not given an exact figure – and are struggling to find a financial backers. To add insult to injury, they also find themselves without a stadium.

The situation, unveiled in a report in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung newspaper, has stunned Swiss football and also highlighted the financial difficulties faced by European clubs who are outside the big leagues.

Swiss Football League (SFL) rules require teams to be in a sound financial situation before they are allowed to play in the top flight. Clubs are permitted to have debts but must have a backer to cover these.

“The situation has been acute for months,” club president Roger Berbig told the paper.

“The people responsible for the club are intensively occupied with the search for new money. If they do not succeed in reaching a financial deal by the end of the year, then relegation to the 1. Liga is a possibility which we must examine.”

Grasshopper are funded largely by Heinz Spross, a garden centre magnate, who is believed to be running out of patience. “I can imagine that at some point, he will have had enough,” said Berbig.

Talks with businessman Philippe Gaydoul, former CEO of the supermarket chain Denner and president of the Swiss ice hockey federation, broke down last June although the door has reportedly not been closed completely.

The scenario is not new in Switzerland. In early 2005, Servette of Geneva, winners of 17 league titles, were relegated to 1. Liga (third division) after being declared bankrupt with debts of £5.8million. They immediately won to promotion back to the Challenge league (second division) where they now play.

Seven-times champions FC Lausanne suffered a similar fate in 2003.

Even though Switzerland is one of Europe’s most prosperous countries, it’s clubs often find themselves in a similar predicament to their counterparts in South America as they struggle to hold on to their top players. The internal market is small, money from television rights is limited and football also has to compete with ice hockey.

It takes only a few good performances for a player to arouse interest from a club in one of the bigger European leagues who offer wages with which the Swiss cannot compete.

This also adversely affects the Swiss national side as their players move to bigger clubs where they struggle to get a game – Philipp Degen at Liverpool and Philippe Senderos at Arsenal being too examples.

Several players such as leading scorer Alex Frei and Colombian-born Johan Vonlathen returned home this season after national team coach Ottmar Hiztfeld said he wanted them playing regular first-team football.

Critics say that, despite all the financial limitations in Swiss football, Grasshopper have continued to behave as if they were a big club, failing to reduce transfer spending and wage bills.

Even if Grasshopper survive financially, their problems do not end there. After making a dismal start to the season, the team found themselves struggling near the wrong end of the table after taking only seven points from their first eight games.

They are also being forced to play at the Letzigrund stadium, the home ground of their arch-rivals FC Zurich. Their own Hardturm ground was closed in September 2007 and demolished, however the replacement Stadion Zurich got bogged down in a planning row and is not due to be ready until 2014.