Switzerland’s dreams of hosting the World Cup here at home faded years before the actual event ...
Switzerland’s dreams of hosting the World Cup here at home faded years before the actual event ... by courtesy

World Cup dreams made of steel pipes

Little Switzerland had big dreams: our nation put in a bid to host the 1998 Football World Cup. It started with plans for gigantic stadiums, and ended with makeshift arrangements on village squares – and huge embarrassment.

Mämä Sykora

Mämä Sykora

Mämä Sykora is editor-in-chief of the football magazine ‘Zwölf’.

It all began with a bit of innocent flattery. At the 1986 Football World Cup in Mexico, then-President of FIFA João Havelange met Heinrich Röthlisberger, President of the Swiss Football Association (SFV), and said how wonderful it would be to hold the World Cup in Switzerland, the home of FIFA. With these few words, he put a bee in Röthlisberger’s bonnet that would culminate in Switzerland being made a laughing stock on the world stage. Röthlisberger became obsessed with the idea. After initial assessments, he proclaimed: “Havelange has assured me that we will win the bidding if we want the 1998 World Cup.” And the headlines in Blick screamed: “It’s a bye for Switzerland!”. Everyone seemed to have completely forgotten that football had grown massively since the World Cup was held here in Switzerland in 1954. Back then, the 16 participants played 26 games in 6 stadiums, which could become so crowded that even the Cornaredo in Lugano held 36,000 people. In 1998 there were to be twice as many participating teams, and the requirement was for ten large stadiums with seated-only spectator accommodation. The outdated infrastructure in this country couldn’t hope to compete in terms of capacity or security.
The Swiss football stadiums of the 1954 World Cup. YouTube
SFV President Röthlisberger was undaunted. He got potential sponsors on board, did the rounds of the political decision-makers, and announced in the newspaper Sport: “The more involved you get in the project, the less unrealistic it becomes.” Everywhere, teams were hard at work on plans for new stadiums. St Jakob-Park in Basel, for example, was to be rebuilt for 200 million francs and would have 50,000 seats, while Bern’s Wankdorf was to be enlarged into the second major stadium. Because time was short, creative solutions were sought. In St. Gallen, for example, the Espenmoos ground couldn’t be enlarged due to lack of space, so it was decided to simply build a new facility at Gründenmoos. And in Lucerne, the planned Waldstadion (30,000 seats) was to be combined with an underground shooting range that would be used as carparking on match days – a kind of rudimentary mixed-use arrangement.
A glimpse into the SFV’s application dossier.
A glimpse into the SFV’s application dossier. by courtesy
Lucerne’s Waldstadion existed only as a rough sketch.
Lucerne’s Waldstadion existed only as a rough sketch. by courtesy
In June 1989, the Initiative Committee headed by Heinrich Röthlisberger – he had now been replaced as SFV President by Fredy Rumo – faced the press.  There was almost nothing positive to report: the planned stadiums met resistance in every quarter, no city wanted to participate financially, and the Committee’s proposals suffered defeat after defeat at the ballot boxes. As a result, all the projects were being significantly downsized, and some venues, such as Aarau, withdrew entirely. FIFA anticipated at least 120 million francs from the sale of World Cup tickets; a sum that can only be recouped with massive arenas.
Initiative Committee schedule.
Initiative Committee schedule. Swiss Federal Archives
Sepp Blatter with the World Cup, 1998.
Sepp Blatter with the World Cup, 1998. Swiss National Museum / ASL
When the World Cup kicked off in Italy in the summer of 1990, in huge, modern stadiums, even Röthlisberger saw the futility of the undertaking. In a fax, he advised FIFA that Switzerland was withdrawing its candidacy. But SFV President Rumo, who had always dismissed the World Cup dreams as castles in the air, affirmed that Switzerland was still very interested, that the withdrawal was a unilateral move by Röthlisberger and that it was therefore void. He took hope from statements by FIFA Secretary General Sepp Blatter. Blatter said: “A candidature should not fail on the basis of stadium capacities.” After “Italia 90” and with the upcoming World Cup in the USA in its sights, the World Federation wanted to move away from gigantism; now, it wanted environmental considerations to play a part in the final decision as well.
Opening ceremony of the World Cup in Italy 1990. YouTube
Roger Hauser, the new president of the Initiative Committee, immediately set to work on solving the stadium problems. And he believed he had found Columbus’ egg. In the dossier that was formally handed over to the FIFA representatives at Zurich’s Grand Hotel Dolder in September 1991, the huge arenas had disappeared, and makeshift solutions for the venues were presented instead. Grandstands constructed out of steel pipes were to be used to temporarily enlarge the existing, significantly under-sized, stadiums to World Cup dimensions. In the absence of alternatives, even Baden and Thun stadiums were to be drafted in as venues. Sportplatz Lachen, where in normal circumstances 300 people followed the League 1 games of FC Thun, was earmarked to grow to an incredible 46,000 seats. Temporary wooden railway stations were to be erected in a number of places. Even previously euphoric supporters of the scheme were sceptical; only Finanz und Wirtschaft journal crowed: “Never before has the opportunity for our nation to showcase itself on the global stage been so good – let’s grab it.”
World Cup games were even scheduled to be played in Thun’s Lachen stadium. The photo is from 1995.
World Cup games were even scheduled to be played in Thun’s Lachen stadium. The photo is from 1995. ETH Library Zurich
The dossier contained numerous letters of recommendation and declarations of intent, but precious little of any substance. FIFA flagged up these deficiencies to the Initiative Committee a number of times. At the beginning of May 1992, the organisation sent a delegation to our country. Federal President Flavio Cotti was sent ahead to affirm political support. The knockout blow followed a few days later: a tubular steel grandstand collapsed during a football game in Bastia, killing 18 and injuring more than 2,000. FIFA promptly banned such provisional measures until further notice. Now even government officials were begging Fredy Rumo to withdraw his application. In vain.
The SFV sought to cover the capacity shortfalls with makeshift measures. A number of examples were set out in the application dossier.
The SFV sought to cover the capacity shortfalls with makeshift measures. A number of examples were set out in the application dossier. by courtesy
In July, in Zurich of all places, the FIFA Executive Committee selected the host of the 1998 World Cup. France won the race with 12 votes, ahead of Morocco with 7. And what about Switzerland? Due to “technical defects”, Switzerland’s dossier wasn’t even allowed to be considered for voting. The NZZ pronounced its own judgement: “The debacle bespeaks a miscalculation of one’s own chances, with a concept of a makeshift character and a poorly developed sensitivity to the mood in the crucial levels of officialdom.” And the Tages-Anzeiger found it simply “unparalleled and deeply embarrassing”. Other than the SFV, almost no one was saddened by this rout. At any rate, the organisation learnt that such a major event cannot be tackled alone – and teamed up with Austria to host the 2008 European Championships. But we’re still waiting for FIFA’S announced move away from gigantism.

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