Servette eye return to former glories

Servette's Julian Esteban, left, in action against Armand Deumi of FC Thun Keystone

A year after being declared bankrupt and booted out of the Super League, one of Switzerland's oldest football clubs is back in the big time.

This content was published on February 3, 2006 - 13:53

Servette are playing in the quarterfinals of the Swiss Cup – the latest step along what is undoubtedly the toughest comeback trail in the club's history.

This time 12 months ago the Geneva club were dead and buried. Saddled with debts of around SFr11 million ($8.5 million), Servette were kicked out of Switzerland's top division after an unbroken stay of 115 years.

The club's flamboyant president Marc Roger was arrested on fraud charges and the team found themselves playing in the third division, reduced to amateur status.

It appeared a potentially ignominious end to a club that had won the Swiss championship 17 times, the Swiss Cup seven times and competed on almost 30 occasions in European events.

But far from throwing in the towel, Servette are slowly getting back on their feet. They are currently top of their league and on Sunday face Challenge League side Winterthur at home in the 30,000-seater Stade de Genève.

"After the bankruptcy in February last year it was very difficult. But we were lucky to have a president who invested a lot of time and money to keep the club going," Sébastien Fournier, the club's vice-president and sporting director, told swissinfo.

"We were extremely fortunate that Servette remained Servette. Today we have around 1,500 season ticket holders, which for the third division is amazing, we have a fantastic stadium, which is one of the reasons players want to come here, and now we have a quarterfinal in the Swiss Cup."

Making progress

Fournier, who joined the club as a player in June 1997, took over as sporting director in June last year. He says the aim is to make it into the Challenge League – or second division – within three years, and so far his charges are making good progress.

The club brought in a few players and a new coach before the start of this season, and if they maintain their current form they should clinch a berth in the end-of-season play-offs for a place in the Challenge League.

"We are ahead of schedule in the sense that at this stage we didn't think we'd be where we are now," said Fournier. "But in football things can change quickly."

According to the former Swiss international, one of the few silver linings of last year's fall from grace is that the club and its supporters have drawn closer together.

Following the bankruptcy and with Servette's future still uncertain, supporters' groups rallied round to keep the club afloat. In November last year they all joined forces, raising SFr150,000 for the 2005/6 season – more than a tenth of the club's SFr1.2 million budget.

"The players with us now work at the post office, people see them on the pitch on Saturday and then delivering their mail on Monday," said Fournier. "We have become a lot more accessible and closer to the fans."

Youth policy

Servette have retained their long-standing youth policy and around 70 per cent of the budget goes on bringing younger players up through the ranks. Teams are run at under-18, under-16, under-15 and under-14 levels.

This "philosophy", as Fournier puts it, is crucial to the future of a side left with just three first-team players after last year's bombshell. But the club's faith is certainly paying off.

In front of 4,000 supporters in the Stade de Genève on December 17, Servette beat Super League heavyweights Thun 5-4 on penalties to make it through to the quarterfinals of the Swiss Cup.

"The game against Winterthur is a bonus. It's a gift for the players and the fans. Unfortunately we have some key players injured or suspended - but that's life," said Fournier.

"All I ask is that the players fight for 90 minutes and show that Servette are not dead. I hope people will see that we have players who are proud of the club and prepared to sweat blood in a Servette shirt."

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

Servette's difficulties began in 2001 when French television group Canal Plus reduced its majority holding to comply with ownership rules laid down by European football's governing body, Uefa.

Early in 2004 former football agent Marc Roger took over as president, promising to return the club to its glory days. But cash failed to materialise and Servette were officially declared bankrupt on February 4. Roger was arrested a month later on charges of mismanagement.

Following the club's bankruptcy, the Swiss Football Association – which had seen Lausanne and Lugano crumble financially in previous seasons – introduced tighter financial controls for clubs.

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Key facts

Servette were founded in March 1890.
They have won 17 Swiss championship titles and the Swiss Cup seven times.
The team's home ground is the 30,000-seater Stade de Genève.

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More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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