FC Basel’s conveyor belt of talent shows no signs of slowing down.
Switzerland’s most successful and prestigious academy continues to produce glistening gems who have gone on to play in the Premier League and La Liga. In fact, over 40 players have progressed to the Basel first team since 2000, including Xherdan Shaqiri, Ivan Rakitic and Arsenal's summer signing Granit Xhaka.
While Basel may not be one of the more intimidating names in the Champions League, there can be no doubting that Urs Fischer's side are a well-oiled machine when it comes to producing quality youngsters. Having picked up seven consecutive Swiss Super League titles, Fischer’s side showed their experience and prowess in Europe last season by reaching the last 16 of the Europa League.
Shaqiri, Rakitic, Xhaka and Alexander Frei are just a few of the Basel alumni who have gone on to ply their trade for some of Europe’s best clubs. But what makes their academy so successful? Goal spoke to Basel director of football Georg Heitz to discover the secret of what separates the Swiss giants from the rest of Europe.
“I think it’s a question of mentality because we try to be the best in the country and get the best players,” Heitz told Goal. “We invest a lot of money in our academy [around €6 million a year] which is a lot in Switzerland. The Swiss league is a good springboard for young players because it’s not as competitive as the Bundesliga or Premier League, which means it’s easier for young players to get minutes."
Premier League revenues for last season revealed that Arsenal became the first club in history to receive more than £100m in television money in one campaign. Those eye-watering numbers eclipse the miniscule figure received by Basel for dominating their domestic league every season. Heitz has no qualms in admitting that the Swiss league will never be able to compete with its European powerhouse counterparts.
“There’s no chance because we don’t have a TV market here. We have 7 million people living in this country. Out of the population, 4.5 million speak German, a few million speak French and Italian – there’s no TV market at all. We receive €2m from TV money if we win the league. When we negotiated the transfer of Mohamed Elneny to Arsenal we told Dick Law [Arsenal's chief transfer negotiator] and he was a bit surprised.”
The financial constraints holding Switzerland back have forced Basel to produce from within – a philosophy that has worked wonders in recent seasons. While many Premier League clubs, including Arsenal and Manchester City, have looked abroad for young foreign talents in the past, Basel are reluctant and unable to go down the same route.
“We don’t sign foreign players for the academy because it doesn’t make sense in our opinion. They get homesick and we don’t want them to stand in the way of the Swiss talent. The most successful products are all born in the area of Basel.”
One of those successful talents is Granit Xhaka. The 23-year-old completed a summer move to Arsenal for a fee in the region of £30m. Xhaka, who became Borussia Monchengladbach’s youngest ever captain, has already been lauded for his tough tackling and leadership abilities from midfield. Heitz - a man who has seen him up close for several years - says they're not his only strengths.
“Xhaka has a number of qualities. Football wise he is a natural-born leader but I think the outstanding quality is his mentality because he wants to win, win, win,” he said. “I remember when he went to the U17 World Cup in 2009 he told us he took enough clothes to reach the final and then he came back as a world champion. That’s an example just to show how strong his mentality is. They [the young players] need to know that they have to work hard. Granit is a player who definitely wants to work hard and who has shown that by developing in Gladbach and becoming captain at a young age.”
Xhaka’s older brother, Taulant, is currently playing for Basel and the duo will come up against each other again having already met at Euro 2016, when Switzerland faced Albania (the brothers were born in Basel to Kosovo-Albanian parents but Granit opted to play for the country of his birth). Highly rated Taulant has yet to establish himself on the European scene but Heitz believes it's just a matter of time before he follows in the footsteps of Granit.
“He definitely has the talent to play in the Premier League,” he said. “He’s a fantastic player but he was always a little bit behind his younger brother. When he was younger Taulant suffered a little bit from that but now he’s accepted the situation and is very proud of his brother.”
Another youth team star to make it big, Ivan Rakitic, picked up his second La Liga title with Barcelona last season and is a regular in the Catalan giants' midfield. The 28-year-old is Basel’s most successful academy product and continues to flourish in the Spanish top flight, yet he remains down to earth and thankful to the St Jakob-Park side where it all began for him.
“He is constantly in contact with our club president Bernhard Heusler because they’ve known each other for 15 years now,” Heitz said. “He’s a humble person. If you have a look at the best players in the world they’re humble and willing to work. He’s extremely talented and a little bit more offensive than Xhaka but still a fantastic player.”
Basel have certainly set the benchmark for clubs looking to break into Europe's elite, but it could be dashed if plans for a European Super League eventually get approved. The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL), speaking on behalf of the likes of Basel, has spoken of its opposition to those proposals, stating that it guarantees big clubs a place in the Champions League each season, increasing the already widening financial gap between the likes of England and Switzerland. For now, Heitz is adamant that the club are achieving what they can with the resources they have.
"If you see the budget of other teams it’s nearly impossible to win the Champions League. We always say we want to be in the European competitions in spring, not only at the beginning of the season, and that can also be the Europa League. Of course we depend on participating in the Champions League but we’ve made it to the last 16 in that competition and the Europa League semi-final - I think this is very close to the maximum."