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Wankdorf – the second miracle of Berne

The stadium

Name: Wankdorf Stade de Suisse
Address: Papiermuhlestrasse 71, Berne, Switzerland
Opened: 1954
Last renovation: 2005
Max. standing fans: none
No. of seats: 31,812
VIP: 188
Total capacity: 32,000
Covered: 100%
Home teams: Young Boys and occasionally Swiss national team
Website: www.stadedesuisse.ch

Wankdorf – the second miracle of Berne

Despite the giant clock that used to gaze down from one of the imposing corner towers, time seemed to stand still. Fans occupying the rotting wooden benches at the Wankdorf Stadium in Berne in the 1980s and 1990s could close their eyes and still conjure up the roar from the crowd of 62,471 watching the 1954 World Cup final when West Germany’s Helmut Rahn scored the third, decisive goal. That feat spelled much more than a footballing triumph, as the majority of commentators interpreted the victory as a cathartic experience for an entire nation freeing itself from the trauma of the Second World War.
Coach Sepp Herberger’s boys beat Hungary’s dream team 3-2, with Fritz Walter and co. entering the annals of football history as the heroes of the so-called “miracle of Berne”. Fifty years later, their famous escapade was made into a film. People still talk about the ecstatic welcome awaiting the first German football heroes of modern times at every station they stopped at on their momentous train journey home.
The victory celebrated by that side is still regarded as the most famous episode ever at the Wankdorf, built especially for the 1954 FIFA World Cup TM, but the stadium has been the scene of many other highlights and stories since then. Wankdorf was traditionally the venue for the Swiss cup final, but its predecessor, built in 1925, has also witnessed some dramatic moments. It was here in 1959 that goalkeeper Erwin Ballabio returned from a four-year retirement to celebrate a comeback that lasted one whole game. The future coach of the Swiss national team had leapt into the breach to replace Grenchen’s injured first-choice keeper. Ballabio managed to keep a clean sheet and win the cup for the first time with a 1-0 victory over Servette.

Sitdown protest
The cup final in 1967 caused international furor when referee Karl Goppel awarded a controversial penalty to Basel while they were level one-all with Lausanne. The fouled player himself, striker Helmut Hauser, stepped forward to the penalty spot and promptly put his team into the lead – whereupon the Lausanne players immediately staged a sitdown protest. After a never-ending altercation, Goppel called the match off and Basel were later awarded 3-0 victory.
In the 1970s and 80s, the stadium was beginning to crumble under the fans feet. Wankdorf took on the aura of museum and was soon regarded as a parody of a place where football was supposed to be played. In its swansong, it could at best have been described as exuding a morbid charm. At the same time, local club Young Boys went into a steady decline, as if in sympathy with the deteriorating cult stadium, before finally climbing back into the second division. In 2001, Wankdorf Stadium was demolished and the revered Young Boys were shunted into the equally antiquated Neufeld Stadium, consoled by the fact that they would be moving into a new building in four years’ time, once plans for the new stadium had overcome interminable political and financial obstacles.
When the Wankdorf Stade de Suisse was finally opened in 2005, it was cynically dubbed “the second miracle of Berne”. Building plans, especially those for sports grounds, usually take longer to materialize in Switzerland on account of the plethora of objections that local residents are entitled to make. The Bernese have a reputation for reacting a little more slowly than the rest of the Swiss, and in Berne all things Helvetian just take more time. All in all, it took nigh on twenty years from the dawn of initial plans for a new stadium in the Swiss capital until the Young Boys finally managed to play in a modern arena.
The driving force behind the project was building contractor Bruno Marazzi, who was also the brains behind the St Jakob Park in Basle inaugurated four years previously. The arena in Berne was built as a multi-purpose stadium, as this is the only commercially viable option for such facilities in Switzerland. Although Wankdorf Stade de Suisse contains a range of shops and offices, and despite the fact that concerts may be staged there, the spotlight will always be on sport, in keeping with the original plans. The new building is spacious and airy, with the emphasis on comfort and easy access to drinks and snacks, as well as a perfect view of the pitch from each of the 32,000 seats.

Sion’s grip
Marazzi’s financial support of the Young Boys in the interim period enabled them to keep up standards, and nowadays the team features prominently among Switzerland’s elite. They did, however, suffer a major setback when confronted with another team’s impressive record of victories at Wankdorf. Whenever Sion feature in the cup final, the Valaisian club always win the title. History repeated itself again in 2006, despite the fact that Sion were from a lower division and one man down due to an early sending-off. Howevere, the Valaisians had to endure a penalty shoot-out before claiming victory.
Speaking of penalties, a mishap occurred when an artificial turf pitch was installed in the 2006-2007 season. The penalty spot had been marked only ten metres from the goal line and no-one noticed until four matches later, when a hawk-eyed referee remeasured the distance …
The artificial pitch is due to be replaced temporarily with natural turf in the countdown to 2008, when Wankdorf will again have the opportunity to rewrite the history books during the European Championship to be hosted jointly by Switzerland and Austria.