As Henley the Scrounger said to the poorly sighted Colin the Forger, “twenty minutes over this ridge, next stop Switzerland” !! Buckle up, we are off to the land of clocks, chocolate, cheese and Calcio Swiss style!
I am sure when readers are planning a trip there is always a desire to collect information on all available fixtures within a given travel distance of your chosen base ahead of making the finalised plan. It is always a little more of an allure if that plan includes a cross-border game! That was exactly my situation when contemplating the options for an early November trek to North Italy, where thankfully TV schedules seemed secured earlier than normal. I had booked flights Friday to Monday but when the Europa League group fixtures became known I contemplated flying out a day earlier as Lugano were scheduled to play Malmo, a city reasonably close to Milan. It had the look of an entertaining joust, but something made me hold off making the flight alteration, which transpired to be a good idea as Lugano’s Cornaredo Stadium isn’t up to UEFA standards apparently and they are having to travel some distance to St Gallen to host games in front of considerably lower crowds than had they played of at home. I am sure these circumstances were of great disappointment to the good people of Lugano as it is 250 kilometres to St Gallen!
All was not lost on the notion of catching a game in Ticino, the Italian speaking region of Switzerland. Europa League duty guaranteed a Sunday fixture, and a home one at that with Lugano hosting big boys FC Basel! The lakeside beauty of Lugano for a day, or pitch up in the commuter town of Busto Arsizio solely for the game?! The feisty rivalry between Aurora Pro Patria and Alessandria in Italy’s Serie C would have to wait another season! It was a no brainer, Switzerland won hands down! I had been there a few times but not since 1986 or so, and never for a game, but arranging this adventure, Switzerland became the 30th country I have watched a game! I bought my ticket online via the Lugano website (Swiss Francs, 24 for the terracing at the side of the main stand), but even with Basel in town the early purchase had been unnecessary as the ground was nowhere near full.
As the train snakes around the hillsides and through tunnels from Como, via Chiasso the Swiss border town, the height of the Lugano Prealps, as the mountains in this region are known, seem to get higher and higher with the snow caps showing more frequently. It is an awe inspiring view as the train edges around the lake ahead of Lugano coming into sight. The railway station sits high above the majority of the city and from just outside its entrance affords wonderful views across Lugano rooftops, spires and out across the lake, as well as allowing the football fan to get a first glimpse of the Cornaredo floodlight pylons off some way in the distance! It’s a good old hike from here to the stadium, but the game wasn’t until 4pm and arriving at just after 10,30 in the morning following the 90 minute train from Milan, with the sun shining I was relishing plundering the city ahead of the football.
Lugano is beautiful, it’s crescent shaped coast affords wonderful lakeside walks with cafe stops aplenty, piers for lake tour boats to whisk you off out to sea, or merely a pedalo for hire for more sedate recreational inshore fun! With a population of 63,185 Lugano is the ninth city of Switzerland, but it is the largest Italian speaking place in the world outside Italy, but it isn’t the capital of Ticino, that honour falls to Bellinzona further north in the region. A funicular railway will take you from the station down into the city, or you can just walk, albeit a zig zag route, steps and all, but it is relatively easy. As you’d expect of a well to do Swiss lakeside city, the streets, the houses and the gardens are immaculate indeed the whole place is pristine and clean, and the shops are largely designer! There are bars and restaurants to accommodate all tastes, and a MacDonald’s that must have one of the most glorious views of any in its franchise portfolio! We might scoff at such a venue for lunch, but if you are on a tight budget it’s an option as nothing is cheap, indeed the local shops etc will happily take your Euros but on a 1:1 basis to the Swiss Franc with change given in the local currency.
The Cornaredo Stadium is 3 kilometres from the centre of the city and its shoreline. I was there on a Sunday, a day when some of the bus routes aren’t running, but the walk to the stadium is flat, leisurely and leafy, as well as being as straight as an arrow following a small river that acts as a tributary of the lake. Eventually the buildings dissipate and fenced off practise pitches act as a forerunner to the stadium coming into view. Don’t bank on following the black and white scarves or flags to guide you towards the stadium as I only ever saw a handful of club colours and even then, only in the immediate vicinity of the stadium!
With a capacity of just 6,330 the Cornaredo is a relatively small venue, but given it was maybe just over half full for the visit of the big boys from Basel, the stadium perhaps rarely gets close to a sell out these days. It is a municipal facility with one of those pesky running tracks around the pitch. It is also sadly surrounded by unnecessary fencing which doesn’t unduly impinge on your viewing if you are on the top steps of the relatively low terracing, but a seat in either stand will alleviate any viewing issues completely. Next to the main stand is an unusual glass house stand with a lot of soft seating acting as the hospitality zone, and with the visit of Basel this area was certainly full.
FC Lugano are in their eighth passage of Swiss club football history in the top flight. Having been founded in 1908 the club made its First Division debut 14 years later in 1922. In 1931 they won their first honour, the Swiss Cup, a trophy that has headed to Lugano on two more occasions in 1968 and 1993, with both wins seeing the club qualify for Europe, with lofty league position also adding to the clubs eight Euro campaigns. The last two Euro outings, both in very recent years, were relatively fruitless attempts at getting out of Europa League groups where they qualified directly, doubtlessly aided by the efforts of FC Basel and Young Boys Bern for Switzerland on the old co-efficiency table! Amongst the first six European games Lugano ever played, three were against giants of the continent, starting with a European debut in the Cup Winners Cup of 1968/69 against Barcelona, losing 4-0 on aggregate. Twenty five years later, having got by Belorussian outfit Neman Grodno 6-2 on aggregate to give Lugano a first ever Euro progression, Real Madrid were next in Ticino, with the Spanish winning 3-1 en route to a 6-1 aggregate success. Two years later, having seen off Jeunesse Esch, Lugano claimed their most famous scalp beating Inter Milan 1-0 at home and holding on for a 1-1 draw at the San Siro! It was the last time the club progressed in Europe as Slavia Prague saw them off with home and away wins in the next round. Lugano also have three Swiss league titles on the clubs roll of honour; 1938, 1941 and 1948 all long before the European Cup came along, so they have never had the opportunity to play in the top competition thus far, not that actually winning the title is paramount for an invite these days!
The darkest period in the clubs history came in 2003 after relegation from the top flight, when the club was declared bankrupt. Only in 2004 following that familiar quirk in Italy where the club “merged” with an unassuming backwater side Malcantone Agno, and moving it to Lugano, changing the badge and club colours back to the original black and white kit, essentially a usurping, albeit temporarily becoming AC Lugano. They set about working there way through the Swiss leagues returning to the Super League in 2015 where they have settled ever since, qualifying twice for the Europa League via a high league placing. It was both interesting and sad to read in the excellent little free programme that a Ticino super club is being muted, where Bellinzona, Chiasso and Lugano would all pull resources to compete with the more powerful clubs in the German and French regions. Bellinzona in particular have been struggling to get back to an acceptable level, but if this was going to happen it would be another sad essay on the modern game. I for one hope these three famous Ticino clubs retain their independence.
From a home perspective the first half of the Basel game was a shocker. Perhaps the legs were tired after the effort put in during the 0-0 draw on Thursday versus Malmo, coupled with being sent out in a containing formation rather than getting the sleeves rolled up and getting stuck into their more illustrious visitors. It got me thinking that Basel doubtlessly face this tactic in a number of games just as the big duo in Scotland seem to command similar subservience! Leading 2-0 and having rarely broken sweat, it was a good thing the visiting fans were in fine voice otherwise the atmosphere which was already sedate would have edged toward the point of comatose! When I was watching Sassuolo in Reggio Emilia a couple of days before Lugano, the small band of Ultras was positively miniscule by Serie A standards, but they had way more than the thirty or so who gathered on the terrace behind the goal at the Cornaredo and tried to give a little home spin to the atmosphere, but they were badly out sung by the visiting end. Indeed, an attempt by the Basel fans to sing in Italian to insult the Luganese didn’t draw any form of vociferous riposte, merely brought a bout of tutting and head shaking from those around me! We are in the realm of the mature, adult attitudes toward football!
The second half saw Lugano a bit more energised as Basel, who also had a Europa League game on the Thursday, resorted to stifling tactics, but the home side did create moments of mayhem, crashing one against the bar and forcing the keeper to show agility. Had they pulled one back it would have seen a cracking conclusion, but as it was, with the last kick of the game Basel scored a third, almost apologetically, a job well done for them. Lugano’s season has started in a spluttering fashion, perhaps hampered by the extra distraction of six Europa League games, all technically away encounters, but I hope they will stay clear of relegation and keep the flag of Ticino flying proudly in the Swiss Super League.