Nine years ago FC Thun were an amateur side playing before a few hundred spectators in a town known for its castle, lake and surrounding mountains – but not for its football team.
Yet next week the tiny Swiss Alpine club known as the entry to the Alps, visit Arsenal at the start of the Champions League group stage in what has to be one of European football’s most romantic fixtures of recent years.
Until Thun’s unlikely emergence on the European stage, Grasshoppers of Zurich and FC Basle were the only Swiss sides that had managed to reach the group phase of the continent’s leading competition. But on Wednesday, some 800 Thun supporters will follow their unlikely heroes to London for the latest instalment of an adventure that has gripped Switzerland.
To put Thun’s success into perspective, its annual budget is a mere SFr5.5m (£2.4m) – roughly the amount it costs to buy a reasonable Premiership player. Beating Arsenal’s star-studded internationals would rank alongside Northern Ireland’s defeat of England this week as one of the great upsets of recent years.
In a competition so often dominated by the wealthy, Thun’s story is a heartening one. It began in the second qualifying round of this season’s Champions League where they eliminated Dynamo Kiev – one of eastern Europe’s most powerful footballing forces who have played in the competition for nine of the past 10 seasons. Next they thrashed Malmö, the renowned Swedish club beaten by Nottingham Forest in the 1979 European Cup final. Both “home” legs of these ties were played not at the club’s 10,000-capacity Alpine home but at the recently rebuilt Stade de Suisse, a 25-minute drive away in Bern – filled to capacity on each occasion. It was not just because Thun’s dilapidated Lachen stadium was not up to Uefa standards that they could not play their European games there. The ground was also flooded by the recent exceptional rainfall across Switzerland.
The Thun squad includes no big-name players of the calibre of Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole – striker Mauro Lustrinelli is their only established Swiss international. Even the coach, Urs Schoenberger, came from the Swiss lower leagues. But with five Brazilians on the roster, complemented by some talented Africans, Thun are not coming to London just to be rolled over by an Arsenal side desperate to make their mark in the Champions League after years of disappointment.
“We have a mixture of players who come here for their last chance of playing professionally, mixed in with several youngsters, and there is tremendous team spirit,” said club official Christian Stahl. “Everyone is very motivated about this game. It shows what a team with a small budget but bags of spirit can do.”