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Salah's Basel strike a blow for Europe's smaller leagues

Reuters, Wednesday 27 Nov 2013
FC Basel's Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring against Chelsea's during their Champions League Group E soccer match at St. Jakob-Park in Basel November 26, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)
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FC Basel struck a rare blow for teams from Europe's smaller leagues, who often find themselves overwhelmed by their richer rivals from the "Big Five", with their 1-0 Champions League win over Chelsea on Tuesday.

UEFA reserves five places in the group stage for champions of Europe's lower-ranked leagues, who have to play their way through a marathon qualifying competition held in July and August.

Basel, Viktoria Plzen, Steaua Bucharest, Celtic and Austria Vienna made it to the group stages this year and, generally, their presence has served to illustrate the widening gulf between Europe's haves and have-nots.

Apart from Basel, the other four are all bottom of their respective groups and eliminated with a game to go, with Plzen, Steaua and Austria Vienna yet to muster a win between them.

Austria Vienna failed to score a goal in their first four games, Plzen were beaten 3-0 by Manchester City and 5-0 by Bayern Munich while Steaua Bucharest, European champions in 1986, were swept aside 4-0 at home by Chelsea.

Not for the first time, Basel, who began their campaign against Maccabi Tel Aviv in July, are the only one of the smaller teams left standing and need a draw against Schalke 04 in their final match to reach the last 16.

Swiss champions for the last four seasons, Basel are seen as a model club who stay within their financial limits, develop local talent and appreciate the importance of attracting fans to matches.

Their average home attendance of around 28,000, in a country where football competes with ice hockey and Alpine skiing for the public's attention, would be the envy of many clubs in more fanatical soccer countries.

Yet, they find themselves in no man's land as they are currently too powerful for their compatriots, yet do not have the resources to challenge for the Champions League title.

Three-tier squad

Their annual generated income of around 35 million Swiss francs ($38.55 million) per season is way ahead of their local rivals but pales against the likes of Chelsea, who they comprehensively outplayed on Tuesday.

"We are in a special situation where we have won the national championship and on the other hand, the investment we need for the Champions League is too high for the reality of the national league," club president Bernhard Heusler told Reuters earlier this year

"We are walking on a tightrope and this is something we certainly share with a lot of clubs."

The club have resisted the temptation to splurge on big-name signings and instead use a three-tier policy with the squad to try and keep their club sustainable and successful at the same time, a difficult balancing act.

One third consists of experienced Swiss or foreign players, another third of young players raised at the club and the remainder of foreign players who use the club as a springboard to a career in one of the bigger leads.

The undoubted star of the third category is Egyptian 21-year-old Mohamed Salah, who scored the winner against Chelsea on Tuesday and was also on target in the 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in September as the Swiss completed a remarkable double.

Salah was signed in April 2012 after playing for Egypt's under-23 team against Basel in a friendly in early 2012.

Voted Africa's most promising young player in 2012 by the Confederation of African Football, his pace and trickery are immediately eye-catching although he is far from the finished product and his finishing, while clinical on Tuesday, is often erratic.

But just as they sold local talents Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka to Bundesliga clubs 18 months ago, Basel are already preparing for the day when Salah will depart for a club in Spain, England, Italy, France or Germany.

Coach Murat Yakin preferred not to discuss the player's future.

"We are glad that Salah is with us, he builds up a lot of attention when he is in top form. He's an attraction," he said.

"The team deserved to reach a final against Schalke and now we've even overtaken them in the table, but it is of course very difficult in Gelsenkirchen. But it feels great that we're still in the race."

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