When the U.S. Made a Baby Step in Basel

On a forgotten night in 2007, the Americans raised their soccer IQ against Switzerland’s ‘secondos’


Excerpted from The Soccer Diaries: An American’s Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game (Copyright 2014 by Michael J. Agovino, the University of Nebraska Press).

The United States had become, without any big announcement, a lock for each World Cup. There might have been the difficult away game in Tegucigalpa or Kingston and always in the Azteca, but Mexico and the United States were as automatic as Germany and Brazil in their respective regions. Advancing deep into the tournament was the problem. The CONCACAF Gold Cup was more of the same competition. Wins in the World Cup, and especially in Europe, were the problem.

So booking a friendly against Switzerland on October 17, 2007, at Basel’s St. Jakob Park, its biggest stadium, was a good test. The Swiss would be co-hosting the Euro the following year and didn’t have to go through the difficult qualification process, meaning they would take a friendly like this seriously. Fortunately, I was there and made the acquaintance of a smart young blogger named Adam Spangler who ran a website called ThisIsAmericanSoccer.com. I told him I was in Zurich and he suggested I go to Basel and write about the game.

A few days before, Switzerland hosted Austria, the other co-host for Euro 2008, in one of the first games at the newly refurbished Letzigrund. I went; how could I not? It was a completely new stadium and the difference was astonishing. I remembered that first visit in 2003 and how shocked I was at the configuration and condition of the ground. Now it appeared sparkling and light as air. The strobe lights, once in four Brutalist clusters, were now evenly spaced wisps, and this without any star architects involved, as Zurich was one of the world’s few moneyed cities at the time that didn’t feel the need to be validated by a Frank Gehry or Renzo Piano. The stadium still had the running track—the opening event at the new stadium was the annual Weltklasse meet—but for the Euro temporary seats would be built on top of it. For Swiss Super League games and international friendlies like this, the track would remain.

Maybe it was the unusually charged-up Zurich crowd—many probably there for the stadium—maybe it was the underwhelming neighbor to the west, but the Swiss looked as good as I’d ever seen them. The final was 3–1. Tranquillo Barnetta, a left-sided midfielder for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, assisted on all three goals. He was known by what the Swiss referred to as a secondo, meaning a second-generation immigrant. If it sounded like a pejorative, it wasn’t. The first wave of immigration was from Italy (even if Italian is one of the four official Swiss languages) and later Spain and Portugal, men who usually went into construction and contracting. They assimilated easily, worked hard, and their children spoke perfect Swiss-German.

Barnetta was a nice boy, the kind of athlete you wouldn’t mind your sister dating. He and other secondos appeared to be the future of the Swiss national team. More and more were from Africa, Turkey, and especially from the former Yugoslavia, who arrived as asylum seekers by the early 1990s and were not as docile as the immigrants from western Europe. There were so many young people of Balkan descent, that it was even having an impact on the Swiss-German language—itself a mostly unwritten dialect—as South Slavic slang, cadences, and rhythms were considered cool and became part of many young people’s vernacular, not unlike hip-hop English to young Americans. The far right party of Christoph Blocher had, if not gained in popularity, stayed in the headlines of the freebie tabloids that were ubiquitous on the trams.

Switzerland’s future pointed toward diversity, and, you’d imagine, awider pool of soccer talent with improved results that could go with that. A miniversion of the French national team perhaps. Or perhaps not. At least not when the Americans came to town. As good as the Swiss looked against Austria was as bad as they looked against the U.S. Only 16,500 showed up in the Herzog & de Meuron-designed St. Jakob’s Park—all the starchitecture was in Basel—and they booed their team off at half time and full time. Michael Bradley scored the only goal in the eighty-sixth minute in an ugly game but a brave performance for the U.S. team. Winning ugly was something it needed to learn how to do—the hell with wining over new fans.

A few hundred Americans went crazy in the upper tier. It seemed now that wherever the U.S. Men’s National Team played—known as the USMNT, an acronym I don’t remember in the 1980s or ’90s—there were American fans. When it could barely get fans at its home games, it now had traveling supporters, and loud ones. The year before I’d written a history of the national team’s uniform—an identity crisis, I called it—for Slate.com and it got the most response of anything I’d ever published. It was slow, all of this American interest, but the soccer IQ, on part of the players and fans, was sharpening.

In Basel, the Americans chanted “Fred-y, Fred-y” when Adu came on late and, for some reason, “We will, we will, rock you!”—something else I’d never heard at U.S. soccer, but somehow showed more imagination than “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Another small step.