That Historique Night in Genk
“Sriram, it’s f*&9ing amazing what is happening here! I don’t know, I don’t know. But it is amazing! Aye aye aye.” That was the voice memo sent to me by Bijan Ali, a Servette supporter, friend and host of the Servettiens podcast, minutes after he witnessed one of the most memorable nights in the history of his beloved football club. Funny thing is, those words, spoken with delirious joy, summed up the situation perfectly. How on earth did Servette FC just overcome Genk? If the odds were against them when they were drawn against Genk (a club with three times the market value of Servette, according to Transfermarkt), it turned for the worst when Enzo Crivelli got sent off in the 4th minute of the second leg. Yet, the story, from that 4th minute to Ronny Rodelin’s match-winning spot-kick, is one of grit, passion and sheer will to stay alive. I will try to put this fairytale of a result into words in this article.
If you do not know why I am so obsessed with this obscure Swiss club, its because I studied abroad in Geneva earlier this year and attended five Servette games. I made friends, travelled to an away game, experienced limbs, and bounced around with the Ultras. Now, I truly feel connected to this club.
On August 2nd, 2023, Servette FC, the Swiss runners-up, travelled to Belgium to play KRC Genk in the return leg of the second qualifying round of the Champions League. The winner of this round would not only advance to the third-qualifying round, but also guarantee themselves a spot in the Europa League group stage. The first leg in Geneva was a hard-fought 1 – 1 draw, that both teams would have felt hard done by. So, it all came down to that night in Genk.
But before we get into that, here is a brief history lesson of Servette Football Club (for context). The club, based in Geneva, Switzerland is historically one of the most successful in the nation. They have 17 first division titles, 7 Swiss Cups and were the only club to have never been relegated from Swiss top-flight, since its founding in 1898. All that, until they went down after the 2004-05 season due to bankruptcy. The next decade and a half was a dark, tumultuous time for the club. Just like present-day Hamburger SV (a German club who had never been relegated from the Bundesliga until 2017-18 season), Servette struggled to gain promotion back into the top-flight. And when they did (in 2011) financial instability resurfaced, and relegation followed (in 2013).
The last five years, however, have seen the resurgence of Les Grenat (The Maroons). The club not only won the 2018-19 Challenge League and gained promotion, but also achieved relative financial stability after fifteen shaky years.
Now in 2023, Servette finished second in the table and earned a spot in the Champions League qualifiers. The last time Servette played at this level was way back in 1999, so this was a massive occasion for the Grenat faithful, who had endured the last two decades.
Anyways, going back to the second leg of the third qualifying round, the tie is poised at 1 – 1, and Servette needs a win away at Genk. The hosts, who would have won the 2022-23 Belgian league if not for a dramatic final day, were the favorites on paper. That began to translate onto the pitch when Servette forward Enzo Crivelli was sent off within five minutes and Genk scored a penalty in the 28th minute.
However, just six minutes after conceding, Servette advanced up the field and won a foul outside the Genk box. Timothé Cognat’s resulting free kick was deflected by the wall, which completely wrong-footed Maarten Vandevoordt, the Genk goalkeeper, and trickled into the net. Being a man down and a goal down, it felt like the equalizer gave a real lifeline for Les Grenat. Now, they could go back to defending and hopefully hold on until penalties.
Several high profile European clubs will be playing at Stade de Genève this season. And the Tribune Sud will not be so desolate.
Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed soon after halftime, when Tolu Arokodare’s backpost header gave the hosts their second lead. If Cognat’s equalizer was a ‘second chance’ for Servette to stay alive in this match, it certainly seemed like they had squandered it. In the 59th minute, Servette faced another set-back - skipper and starting keeper Jérémy Frick had to be subbed off due to injury. Joël Mall, who had just signed from Cypriot club Olympiakos Nicosia, was thrown in as the replacement.
Despite being a man down, the visitors still found ways to occasionally venture up the field and threaten the opposite goal. On one such occasion, in the 63rd minute, Alexis Antunes wriggled past the Genk backline and squared the ball to Chris Bedia, who tapped into an open net. If a cat has nine lives, Les Grenat appeared to have just as many. Now, only twenty-seven minutes to go in regulation time.
Those remaining minutes must have gone very slowly for the visitors and unreasonably fast for the hosts. Genk did not show any mercy, as their attacks kept coming, wave after wave. Mall had several significant saves, while Nicolas Vouilloz made a crucial goal-line block. Ultimately, the Servette defense stood strong, and the tie went into extra-time.
At this point, one felt there was no way a side that was playing down a man for 86 minutes (plus 6 minutes of injury time), could possibly withstand another half hour of football. However, Genk, who were probably fatigued in their own right, did not create any big chances, and Servette endured whatever they did throw at them. At the end of extra time, Genk had 33 shots, 14 on target, while Servette had 8 and 4 respectively. Genk had 74% possession and 11 corners, while the Servette had 26% and zero corners. Yet, quite remarkably, the scoreline read 2 – 2. After over 115 minutes of playing with ten men, Les Grenat had taken this game to a penalty shootout.
Luckily for Servette, the hosts folded rather emphatically in the tiebreaker. After three penalties each, Servette led 3 – 1. When Ronny Rodelin stepped up to take Servette’s fourth penalty, he knew he could wrap up the game with a goal.
“S’il marque, Servette passe.”
(If he scores, Servette go through)
“Il Marque! Servette FC réussit un exploit monumental ici à Genk!
(He scores! Servette achieves a monumental feat here in Genk!)
“Et se qualifie et poursuivra son adventure!”
(And qualify and will continue their adventure!)
“Oh la la!”
As David Lemos spoke these riveting lines from the commentary box, the Servette players dogpiled on the pitch, while the travelling supporters went into euphoria.
A few minutes later I got that gem of a voice memo from Bijan. I am sure that was just the beginning of a very long, enjoyable night in Genk for him.
Les Grenats will be playing at this iconic footballing venue, later today, in the first leg of this qualifying round. A step up from six years ago, when Servette were playing the likes of Chiasso and Kriens in front of a couple thousand, if that.
While Europa League is guaranteed, Servette will play Glasgow Rangers in the third qualifying round of the Champions League. For a club that has just got back on its feet in the last five years, it is a big deal to be playing against Rangers at Ibrox in a competitive fixture. The return leg in Geneva is already sold out (a week in advance), and the Stade de Genève will be at maximum capacity for the first time since 2003. There is absolutely no expectation for Les Grenat to overcome Rangers but with Servette, you never know.