Big hopes in small-town Switzerland

KEITH BRADFORD -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:45 AM ET

People don't believe in soccer fairytales anymore - at least at club level.

And especially not in the multi-billion dollar industry that is the Champions League.

But a tiny team from Switzerland's 11th biggest town is helping the soccer world to believe again.

Step forward FC Thun, the club that has brought the mountain town of 42,000 to its feet by reaching the last 32 of the world's biggest and richest club competition.

"It's a dream that came true," team spokesman Christian Stahl said in an interview from Thun yesterday, where the team is preparing for next week's game against soccer giants Arsenal.

"The team is small budget - it's a team with no names. Nobody thought it would be possible to beat first Kyiv and then Malmo to get here."

But they did - 3-2 over two games against Kyiv and 4-0 versus the former European Cup finalists.

And then the hard work started.

First, the team had to find a stadium to play in.

Its normal home is about as ready to host a major sports event as the Superdome. Floods that hit central and eastern Europe have left it about three-feet under water.

Not that its capacity of 10,000 - a quarter of the town's population - would have been big enough to host Arsenal, Ajax Amsterdam and Sparta Prague.

Instead, the team will play in the brand new 32,000-seat Wankdorf Stadium in the Swiss capital Bern, which is a 30-minute drive from Thun.

Selling tickets, organizing security and dealing with media interest from all over the world isn't exactly something the club was prepared for.

But it's enjoying the ride.

And its collection of journeymen players are getting ready to enjoy the games - if not the likely results.

"This is all so thrilling, so fantastic for us that it is almost unbelievable," said FC Thun president Kurt Weder.

Getting this far has been a long road for Thun. The Champions League - which pits Europe's best teams against each other - uses a seeding system based on the recent performance of individual teams in the competition, and the countries in which they are based.

As a result, England has four teams in this year's 32-team group stage - three of which qualified automatically - and Thun is Switzerland's sole participant.

National team upsets - like Northern Ireland's stunning win against England yesterday, or Greece winning Euro 2004 - are one thing, since players are borrowed from clubs, not bought.

But a team like FC Thun, which has an annual budget of about $5 million, can't expect to compete with Arsenal, named by Forbes magazine as the seventh-richest team in the world with annual revenues of $172 million US.

They might not win or even tie a single group game. But the whole town - if not the whole country - will be there to watch them try.

"It will be sold out," Stahl said of Arsenal's visit to Bern in November. "We could have sold out twice or three times. The whole of Switzerland is behind this little team."

ODDBALLS: FIFA has ordered a replay of a World Cup playoff between Uzbekistan and Bahrain after ruling a ref was wrong to disallow a penalty. Talk about opening a can of worms ... Argentine-born Ricardo La Volpe has had his fair share of arguments with players since becoming Mexico's national team coach. But apparently, a difference of opinion wasn't the problem when he dropped firebrand striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco. "He didn't have big enough trousers to pick me, it's as simple as that," said Blanco. La Volpe retorted that "my national team is not just about one player ... my trousers are perfectly big enough." Glad we got that cleared up.


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