Last September, when Switzerland beat Norway 2-0 in Oslo to put itself in pole position for automatic World Cup qualification, five of manager Ottmar Hitzfeld’s starting 11 were either FC Basel players or FC Basel alumni.
Similarly, when Switzerland finished runners-up to Spain at the UEFA U-21 Championship in 2011 they did so with key contributions from four Basel players, and when La Nati won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2009 there were five Basel teenagers in manager Dany Ryser’s ranks.
Not that any of this should be surprising, because developing blue-chip prospects is what the St. Jakob-Park outfit is set up to do. And in recent years they’ve been doing it as well as anyone else.
Mohamed Salah, whose €13.2 million move to Chelsea was completed on Sunday, is just the latest up-and-comer to roll off the Basel production line, and between now and the end of next summer there will no doubt be several more of his former teammates who also make big-money transfers.
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Defender Fabian Schar, who scored both goals against Norway, is foremost among them, and each of midfielder Fabian Frei, attacker Valentin Stocker and goalkeeper Yann Sommer will quite likely follow Salah out the door in the short term.
This is simply the way it is at a club whose domestic league generates next to no television revenue. Basel is a selling club—they’ve never made any bones about it—but they’re also very good at what they do. And what they do is invest whatever revenue they earn into their youth and scouting schemes, develop high-end players and then flip them to foreign clubs at significant mark-ups that allow the whole arrangement to continue.
That they happen to out-draw every other club in Switzerland is hardly incidental. Only four managers have been in charge of Basel’s senior team since 1999, and all of them have understood the necessity of playing attractive football in a predominantly gate-driven Super League.
It’s thought that more than half of Basel’s revenue is generated right at the turnstile, and as a result the club have a vested interest in keeping their attendance as close to 30,000 as possible—and this in a city of under 200,000 people.
Basel’s local interest extends to the grassroots level as well.
A 2012 report by the European Club Association found that, of the 220 players enrolled in Basel’s various teams, 200 of them (91 per cent) were born in the region. The Bebbi squad of Under-7s is the entry point for local youngsters, and from there a player can advance through the ranks until graduating from the Under-18s to the senior side.
The club are also astute buyers of foreign talent, of which Salah, Samuel Inkoom and Matias Delgado are prime examples.
Following his €540,000 arrival from Ghana Premier League outfit Asante Kotoko in 2010, Inkoom was sold to Ukraine’s Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk for €5.3 million just two years later. And after joining Basel from Argentina’s Chacarita Juniors for €1.3 million in 2003, Degado was moved to Turkish giants Besiktas for €5.5 million in 2006.
Salah, meanwhile, was playing for the Egypt U-23s when Basel scooped him up.
An important player for Cairo’s El Mokawloon before the cancellation of the domestic season in the wake of the Port Said Stadium disaster, he joined the Swiss club for just €2.5 million in July 2012—an amount Basel increased five-fold on his switch to Chelsea.
It’s likely Basel will go back to El Mokawloon in their search for Salah’s replacement, and already Bassem Ali has been linked with a move to Switzerland.
From there the process will merely start over—the perpetual motion of FC Basel’s relentless football factory.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.