The international break – probably the single most hated period of time for club football fans living outside Europe. After a long week of school or work, you hope to spend a sizeable portion of your weekend watching football on your telly and seeing the fate of your fantasy team unfold. At least, that is how I saw it, with the Premier League, for the past three years. The international break pushes that back by ten days, and ten days can be a long time when you are really looking forward to something. However, studying abroad in Europe last spring gave me the opportunity to see the international break in a different light.
Players warming up under the bright lights, and the Alpine backdrop of Stade de Genève.
On Tuesday, March 28, I attended my first ever international football match. Switzerland was hosting Israel in the Euro 2024 Qualifiers – a dull fixture to watch from home, but extremely enticing when sitting in Stade de Genève's Tribune Nord.
We reached the vicinity of the stadium, with about an hour to kick-off, and were immediately hit with the charm of international football. La Praille (a shopping center adjacent to the stadium), which would normally be swarming with Servette Ultras, was occupied by a less intense, more laid-back crowd. There were plenty of kids with Swiss flags, but also a surprising number of people with Israeli scarves. Once we entered the gates, I found a singular merchandise stand from which I got my customary scarf. There were not many options, apart from a red Swiss one here, and a split scarf that a lone vendor was selling outside. So, the decision was easy, and I did not have to break my head trying to choose the ‘perfect scarf’.
As we entered the stadium and found our seats, the goalkeepers came out to warm up. Yann Sommer, who was starting in goal for the Rossocrociati, began warming up in front of us. It was fascinating to see how cleanly he pinged the ball to either side, from both off the ground and his hands. Jeremy Frick – Servette FC’s Geneva born and bred custodian – was also called up to the Swiss team and it was great to see him out there. Meanwhile, the Israeli goalkeeper Omri Glazer was warming up on the opposite side and he looked very capable as well.
Once the rest of the Swiss team came out for the pre-game, we began to identify big names like Granit Xhaka, Denis Zakaria, and Manuel Akanji. As we watched the rondos and two touch, the stadium began to fill up. The hardcore Swiss supporters occupied the section immediately behind the goal in the Nord Tribune, while the travelling Israeli fans sat in the away section, on the opposite corner. However, there were still a lot of Israeli flags scattered in parts of the home stands. The Est and Principale Tribunes, along the touchline, were also nearly full - a rare occurrence in Geneva.
The Palestinian flags are out, after a missed opportunity for Israel - nothing like an international protest to spice up a football game.
For the first ten minutes of the game, Switzerland had complete control. They were ranked 64 places ahead of Israel in FIFA’s rankings and it showed. A training ground maneuver from a free kick nearly opened the scoring for the Swiss, but Glazer made a smart save. When Israel finally launched their first counterattack, they managed a shot from inside the Swiss box, but it went just wide. The miss was greeted by cheers and jeers from a Palestine contingent behind the goal. The group – of about twenty people – began waving Palestine flags, and it began to cause some commotion. The group of hardcore Swiss fans (Fankurve Schweiz, as they call themselves) exchanged some heated words with them, while a man in plainclothes attempted to snatch the Palestine flags away - resulting in a skirmish. Meanwhile, an announcement on the PA system said something naïve like ‘politics should not be mixed with sports’ and asked the group to put away their Palestinian flags. Fankurve Schweiz’s capo seconded the statement through his bullhorn and a group of policemen in riot gear streamed onto the scene in case the situation escalated. Despite all the noise, the Palestine flag-bearers remained unfazed, and continued to conduct their ‘protests’ during opportune moments in the game.
In the 39th minute, Switzerland’s dominance finally paid off. A cross, flicked on by Cedric Itten, found its way to Ruben Vargas, who poked it into the Israeli net. As the Rossocrociati celebrated their goal, ‘Freed from Desire’ - international football’s favorite anthem – began playing over the speakers, and everyone in the stadium began singing and dancing along.
Two minutes into the second half, Switzerland doubled their lead through Zeki Amdouni. Glazer was equal to Remo Freuler’s improvised flick finish, but Amdouni tapped in the rebound. Despite the two-goal cushion, Switzerland did not back-off. The continued pressure resulted in the Rossocrociati’s third, just five minutes later. Zakaria’s perfectly weighted delivery found Silvan Widmer, who expertly headed past Glazer and into the net. Even though it was quite one-sided at this point, I had no complaints as we got to listen to ‘Freed from Desire’ thrice.
Throughout the game, I noticed many small details that were unique to international football. For example, a trio of drunk men in front of us got up and motivated our section, in intangible French, to help them start the ‘wave’. The wave is generally frowned upon in club football but since this was not club football, everyone was enthusiastic. After a few failed attempts, the wave swept around the stadium, and even the Israeli supporters in the away section joined in. People also had Swiss flags painted on their face, and there were certainly no signs of pyro. It was good, family-friendly vibes all around.
In the 59th minute, Israel registered their only shot on target. 18-year-old Israeli wonder boy Oscar Gloukh found Tai Baribo with a cheeky through ball, but the latter could only force Sommer into a routine save.
Meanwhile, the Palestine contingent continued to make themselves heard. Whenever the noise from the Swiss supporters died down, chants of “Viva viva Palestina” and “Free Palestine” broke out. Unfortunately, Fankurve Schweiz did not take kindly to this, and they would restart their songs even louder to drown out the Palestinians. Despite Geneva being a ‘global city’ and a 'worldwide center for diplomacy’, xenophobia still happens to be pretty apparent.
Tribune Nord was packing for this Euro 2024 Qualifier. No pyro or flags, but still a very good atmosphere.
Anyways, Switzerland had multiple opportunities to further their lead in the remaining minutes. However, some last ditch defending from Israel kept them at bay. In the final minute of injury time, Israeli defender Raz Schlomo misjudged a long clearance which saw Switzerland’s speedy forward Noah Okafor go through on goal. Lucky for Israel, Okafor blazed over the bar.
The game ended 3 – 0, and Switzerland handed Israel their first defeat in these Euro qualifiers. On the other hand, the Rossocrociati remain unbeaten and are on top of Group I. After the game, we walked to the nearest train station, not realizing how crowded it would be. Because, that post-match train ride back home was quite an experience. There were bodies all around me and I had nothing to hold onto for balance. Luckily, no one got hurt and I did not have an embarrassing fall. Nevertheless, the uncomfortable situation did not stop ‘Schweizer Nati Ole’ from ringing out throughout the ride. Watching a football match at the stadium is always fun, but it is the entire experience – from the journey there to the ride back – that makes it all the more memorable.