The importance of a stadium to a club’s
identity and its relationship with the local community has grown in resonance over the
past few years. West Ham fans complain that the London Stadium doesn’t provide the same
atmosphere as the Boleyn. Meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur supporters have grown frustrated at
the delays in construction to their new ground. However, those experiences pale in comparison
to Grasshopper Club Zürich. The most successful side in Swiss history, with 27 league titles,
Grasshoppers are still waiting for construction to start on their new stadium after their
former home, the Hardturm, was demolished in 2008. On the 25th November 2018, the people of Zürich
finally voted to approve the construction of a new stadium on the Hardturm site. Switzerland
uses a system of direct democracy, involving frequent referenda. This was the third referendum
on the Hardturm in the past fifteen years. In a country renowned for its neutrality the
topic has polarized the citizens of Zürich, with the delay being a result of both local
politics and international events, leaving the home city of FIFA without a purpose-built
football stadium. The Hardturm was a venue with an illustrious
history. While the 1954 World Cup is remembered for ‘The Miracle of Bern’, it was in Zürich
where eventual winners West Germany secured their place in the knockout stages, with a
7-2 win over Turkey. The Swiss national team also has fond memories, as it was where they
secured qualification for the 1994 World Cup with a 4-0 win over Estonia, marking their
first appearance at the finals for 28 years. In the early 2000s, plans were unveiled to
modernize the Hardturm to a 30,000-seater as a venue for the 2008 UEFA European Championships.
The project, financed by Credit Suisse, was approved in a referendum on the 7th September
2003 with 63.3% of the vote. However, it was soon caught in legal limbo. The proposal included
plans for a shopping center and the VCS (Swiss Transport Club) claimed that the resulting
traffic would violate environmental law. Meanwhile, local residents filed objections concerning
groundwater and the potential shadow cast by the stadium’s pentagon design. With these legal challenges delaying construction,
Zürich faced losing its right to be a host city. In response, they accelerated plans
to upgrade the Letzigrund, home of Grasshoppers’ local rivals FC Zürich. As well as meeting
UEFA regulations, the renovation aimed to improve it as a venue for the Weltklasse Zürich,
an annual athletics tournament. During construction, FC Zürich moved into the Hardturm for its
final season, winning the league there, much to the displeasure of Grasshoppers supporters. On the 1st September 2007, Grasshoppers played
the final match at the Hardturm, a 2-1 defeat to Neuchâtel Xamax. Both Zürich clubs then
moved to the Letzigrund, where they would play until construction on the new Hardturm
was completed. Neither club was happy with this arrangement. Similarly to the London
Stadium, the Letzigrund was criticized for its running track and lack of atmosphere.
Attendances dipped, as both clubs started to pay more in rent than they were making
in match day revenue. In June 2009, Credit Suisse pulled out of
the project to redevelop the Hardturm, citing delays and the global financial crisis. The
land was sold back to the city, which proposed a plan to rebuild the stadium using public
money. Its plans included a number of social housing units. However, due to the spiraling
costs to the taxpayer, estimated at 216-million francs, it was rejected in a referendum on
the 22nd September 2013, by just 50.8% of the vote. In 2015, the city ran a competition for investors
to put forward their proposals for the ground and in July 2016 it was announced that ‘Projekt
Ensemble’, led by HRS Investment AG, was the winning bid. Its proposal consists of
an 18,000-seater stadium, 174 social housing units and two towers for commercial and residential
use. These will stand at 137 meters, which is higher than the current tallest building
in Zürich, Prime Tower. The proceeds from these will help finance the stadium, which
once completed will host both Zürich clubs, leaving the Letzigrund for athletics and concerts. This was met with resistance from locals,
who in the intervening decade have reclaimed the ground upon which the Hardturm stood.
An association called Stadionbrache Hardturm was tasked with overseeing the temporary use
of the land for non-commercial use. What was a wasteland transformed into a flourishing
public garden, including skate parks and food stalls. Both the Green and Social Democratic
parties campaigned for a NO vote in the November 2018 referendum, arguing that one of the last
green spaces in the city should be protected. While football clubs are seen as inextricably
linked to their communities, the demolition of the Hardturm removed that pretense. For
many locals, the land now serves far more communal value than it would as a football
stadium. However, on the 25th November 2018, Grasshoppers celebrated as 53.8% voted in
their favour. The result came through just before their match against FC St. Gallen at
the Letzigrund, which they then won 2-1. Grasshoppers have been here before, though.
After the vote, FC Zürich President Ancillo Canepa, expressed his hope that it won’t
be dogged by delays. Of particular concern are the two towers, with the 10th district
of Höngg being the only one to vote against the project, out of opposition to their height.
As a result, there are doubts whether Grasshoppers will meet their target of 2022. Given the
cost of playing at the Letzigrund, failure to do so could see the club’s very future
at stake. Prior to the November 2018 vote, Grasshoppers President Stephan Anliker suggested
that if it didn’t go their way, they might have to withdraw from the league. While Grasshoppers
would see a successful return as an overdue homecoming, considering how the land has been
used in their absence, they may find the neighbours far less welcoming than they used to be.