I was trundling along on the single track railway between Belgrade and Novi Sad, when my phone buzzed. Despite overheating in the boiling hot temperatures it had been subjected to, it had managed to capitalise on the intermittent phone signal available in the rural fields of Serbia. This was just one leg in our mammoth summer adventure that took us through six countries that formed a long-winded loop between Austria and Hungary.
My mate from University, Jamie, had messaged me – only half joking – that I should have flown out to Switzerland instead and spent time at his family home close to Geneva. By the end of my Serbian train journey, my flights were booked and two weeks later he was picking me up from Geneva Airport. I didn’t know it, but my spontaneous decision to book a further holiday proved to be a litmus test for my then relationship, with my ex unhappy at me deciding to spend four days in Switzerland without consulting her first.
I found Founex, Jamie’s home village, which sits on the banks of Lake Geneva, quiet and pleasant. This was a complete contrast to Geneva Airport, that sent me dizzy with it’s archaic winding staircases and vast labyrinth of tunnels. Fortunate with my seat allocation, I was on the right hand side of the flight which allowed me to enjoy scenic views down the lake, with the city visible at the far end.
It dawned on me that driving with the roof down was something which I had never experienced before. Safe to say, I was absolutely loving it as we drove through the local vineyards accompanied by the sounds of Tom Grennan. At the house a hot tub sat in the corner of the garden, begging to be used while Mont Blanc helped form part of a spectacular landscape.
Their garden, tucked away in a quiet residential area would be the scene of pleasant evenings with Jamie’s family who were very hospitable. Even a menacing thunder storm which rolled into the canton didn’t stop us enjoying the warm weather. A highlight amongst many, was tea one night where the table was filled with local wine and food. Raclette – a cheese from the nearby mountains – was melted on a heater at the table and then scraped on to boiled potatoes which were accompanied with meats and pickles. The wine, which kept being poured, was arguably the nicest I had ever tasted.
Before exploring Geneva itself, Jamie took me on the short journey to the neighbouring town of Nyon, which was just a few minutes up the road. Football fans will of course be familiar with the place as it is where the UEFA headquarters are. Built on prime land, right on Lake Geneva with jetty’s for quick access, the building looks like a space age lair for evil villains, which of course it is.
Security at UEFA was practically non-existent but it did have a purposeful ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ entrance, down an embankment off the A1 motorway. Essentially, it was a posh drive through, with the road looping past the main entrance and back out again. There wasn’t much sign of where the Champions League draws take place. We didn’t stick around for long, scared that the ghosts of Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter may come back to haunt us.
Parking up in Nyon, we ambled down the steep cobbled streets by the historic castle. It was eerily quiet, with barely anybody else out and about on this summer’s afternoon. In the Fishermen’s Pub, opposite the Fontaine Maîtres-Jacques we formulated a rough itinerary for the following day when we would head to the Stade de Genève to watch the side Jamie supported, Servette.
A 20:00 kick off a Friday night was perfect. Geneva isn’t exactly known for it’s vast number of landmarks and attractions, so it meant by the time we headed over to the match I would have seen most of the city.
The day started with an erratic run down the hill to flag down the irregular bus service in Founex. I was in desperate need of my inhaler which was over 600 miles way in Manchester. I was still catching my breathe back when we arrived in Coppet where we could then catch a train into the city centre. Transport, predictably, was very expensive. Everything was.
Various studies available on the internet continually rank Geneva amongst the most expensive place to live in the world. It certainly wasn’t the best place for two students to be keeping themselves occupied. Not that I was at all bothered but it was a day of grabbing cheap cans from supermarkets and generally assessing each financial transaction far more than if we were in the UK, or practically anywhere else in Europe.
Each of the cities central streets were crammed with designer shops, all bolstered by an army of security guards. Flash cars with Middle-Eastern registration plates parked wherever they liked, not caring about fines that would inevitably make no dent in their owners wealth. Even the tourist shops, that would normally stick to postcards and magnets were attempting to cash in, flogging Swiss clocks at extortionate three figure prices.
We took a tram to the north of the city, where the United Nations’ impressive Palais des Nations gleamed with it’s resplendent collection of flags from across the world. Opposite it’s heavily reinforced entrance stands a 40 foot monument called the Broken Chair. With a shattered back leg, is said to remind politicians about the dangers of land mines and cluster bombs. It reminded me of the time my mother crashed through a flimsy plastic chair on the balcony in Portugal.
I suggested to Jamie that we could have a go at climbing up the chair but it turned out that somebody had already done so the previous summer. Brazilian forward Neymar had been invited to kick a ball off the top of it as an ambassador of Handicap International. A harness was supplied, which ensured he wouldn’t be requiring their support any time soon.
On the other side of the city I took great delight in standing underneath the famous Jet d’Eau. The enormous fountain was originally constructed as a water safety valve but after it became a bit of an attraction it was moved to it’s current position in 1891. Jamie didn’t join me on the jetty, opting not to look like a tourist in his home city.
If a large spurt of water wasn’t enough to occupy visitors, just a couple of minutes walk away on edge of Jardin Anglais was the colourful L’horloge fleurie, an outdoor flower clock. Apparently it has the largest ‘second hand’ in the world, knowledge which I made sure to keep in the back of my mind for when it inevitably pops up in a pub quiz.
Included in our transport costs for the day were the local boats that zip from one side of the lake to the other, so we relaxed on one of those before getting out our wallets and finding a bar for a pint. In the shadow of St. Pierre Cathedral’s turquoise spire, we sat outside the imaginatively named Saint-Pierre. As with most European cathedrals, horses were knocking around the cobbled streets waiting to give tourists a lap of the block.
Knowing the pint would be expensive, we savored every sip and took our time. This was a complete contradiction to our normal behaviour where we could normally be found racking them up in the cheap(er) bars of York. Our impatient waiter eventually saw through our plan and we moved on. Cans by the river it was, lounging on the wooden decking which precariously sits above the fast flowing Rhône river.
Built out of the city centre, we opted to catch the tram over to the stadium, getting off at Gare Lancy-Pont-Rouge. It was then a further ten minutes walk from there. It could have been an hours walk and I still wouldn’t have learnt how to pronounce the name of the ridiculous train station we had just used.
Tucked away on the right hand side behind a shopping centre, the Stade de Genève popped into sight. Built in 2003, this modern setting with an Alpine backdrop has a capacity of 30,000 and was used for Euro 2008. Portugal played two group games here, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco entertaining sell out crowds. Tonight’s second division match between Servette and Winterthur would attract just 2,423 supporters.
It was odd that one of Switzerland’s most famous clubs, with 17 league titles to their name would be playing in an empty stadium in a city where they were the sole professional team to support.
In reality, a decade of awful ownership under previous regimes had taken it’s toll. Compounded by the fact that Servette were no longer competing in the top division against the likes of FC Basel, Grasshopper and Young Boys meant a lot of supporters had lost interest.
Back in 2003, Servette, struggling for money, forced the sale of young defender Philippe Senderos to Arsenal just to see out the season.
While the sale of a future international player to the Premier League and the arrival of a new owner appeared positive steps, it simply delayed the inevitable. As the club prepared for the start of the 2004/05 season, their new owner promised to pay off outstanding debts and invest millions.
In a bid to appease supporters, he immediately went on a summer spending spree that even Manchester City would be proud of, signing 21 players including Jean Beausejour, who would go on to win the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic. World Cup winner Christian Karembeu also joined, pushing the wage bill astronomically higher.
These reckless decisions finished the club. At the end of the season, they were declared bankrupt and were relegated to the third level of Swiss football. It brought to an end a 115-year stay in the top division. An absence of six years followed, before a return in time for the 2011-12 campaign.
Despite finishing fourth and qualifying for the Europa League, their stay in the division was abruptly ended and they were relegated back to the Challenge League in 2013, where they remained.
Resiliently, a small band of supporters didn’t seem to care at all. They congregated outside the stadium, waiting for kick off to arrive. Coop supermarket did a roaring trade in pre-match beers. Jamie’s father, who lives just over the border in France, joined us and instantly recognised the beautifully retro shirt that I was borrowing for the evening. It was his old 1979-80 home shirt. Admittedly, it was a little tight for my physique but it just looked so incredibly cool.
The season was still in it’s infancy, only five matches old. Servette had won three of their opening fixtures, all on the road. For some reason, this was their first home match of the campaign. A sense of excitement filled the evening air. There was genuine hope that this could finally be their year after finishing third the previous two seasons. On both occasions, they trailed the champions, FC Zurich and then Neuchâtel Xamax, by 23 points.
From the small ticket office we paid 20 francs each for a ticket in the Tribune Nord. Slipping away from the concrete shell of the concourse and into the stadium revealed a spectacular backdrop, as the setting sun illuminated the white layered rock in the mountains behind.
Jamie’s dad, Michel got the latest round of pints in. They gradually warmed throughout the half as the high temperatures clung to the faded maroon seats of the stadium. We stood amongst the couple of hundred Servette fans who made an effort to make noise throughout. Their incessant waving of a large collection of homemade banners and flags created a family friendly atmosphere, never in danger of intimidating opposing supporters, not that there were many. A quick scan of the stadium revealed two Winterthur fans, sat in the far corner on their own.
We were treated to a 2-0 victory for the home side thanks to a cracking double from Ivorian striker, Koro Kone. His first goal on 15 minutes came after former Bradford City and Ross County defender Christopher Routis pinged a defence splitting through ball over to the right. Miroslav Stevanović collected possession, ran down the touchline and delivered a low cross into Kone who volleyed in. It was a great, clinical move.
If the first goal was clinical, the second which arrived on 68 minutes was a thing of art and was orchestrated by Italian midfielder, Andrea Maccoppi. He chipped the ball over the Winterthur defence and on to the chest of Kone. With his first touch, he cushioned the ball and with his second he found the back of the net, twisting as he hit it.
In darkness, we left the lights of the Stade de Genève behind and headed back to Founex. The streets of the village were alive with locals. It had transformed miraculously form when we had left earlier that day with marquees and pop-up bars scattered everywhere. Reggae music thumped away to the left hand-side, while more popular genres faded in and out in the distance.
We didn’t stick around for the party. It had been a long day and we knew that the following day would be just as busy as we headed over to the capital city, Bern, to watch Young Boys against Neuchâtel Xamax.
After years of instability and bouncing between the top three divisions, Servette were crowned champions of the Challenge League at the end of the 2018/19 season, finishing 15 points clear of second placed Aarau. Winterthur finished fourth.
On their return to the Swiss Super League, Servette hit the ground running and were in fourth place – a Europa League spot – when the season was halted due to the coronavirus outbreak.