Ever Wanted to Play Football At The Highest Level?
Welcome to the highest football pitch in Europe. When the ball goes over the perimeter fence, it's 1,100 metres into the abyss.
"Points of Play" is a series spotlighting the places where sport brings communities together.
There are no roads to Gspon. To reach the tiny, car-free Swiss hamlet perched at 1,900 metres in the Alps near the ski-resort town of Zermatt and the iconic knife-edge peak of the Matterhorn, you take a red-and-white cable car from the town of Stalden. In this Alpine village, the community is centred not around ski slopes or hiking trails, but a football pitch: Ottmar Hitzfeld Gspon Arena, the highest football stadium in Europe.
Andy Furrer (left) and Matteo Abgottspon of the men's Gspon football team move the goalpost before a game.
Amateur team FC Gspon, of the Swiss Mountain League, has played football here since 1974, on the village's only piece of relatively flat land. Grass won't grow at this altitude, so the turf is artificial. During the winter, when the mountain is blanketed by several feet of snow, the pitch forms part of a ski run. Come spring, the players themselves shovel the snow off the (almost) all-weather surface as part of their pre-season training. They also put up the goals.
"Gspon is a fairly mad, picturesque place to play football".
Gspon has one bar, one hotel with a restaurant, one church and a few dozen stone-roofed chalets scattered across the mountainside like dice rolled by a giant's hand. The only sounds you can hear are the gentle whir of the cable car, the clanging of cowbells from grazing cattle and, if you find yourself in Gspon between May and October when the village isn't shrouded in snow, an unmistakable cry: "Goooaaaalllll!"
The stadium was named after former Switzerland and Bayern Munich manager Ottmar Hitzfeld, aka "Der General", who was guest of honour at the new ground's inaugural game. Cut into the mountain, the stadium has a natural sloped terrace for spectators, offering arguably the best view in football. "It is pretty much an endless pitch that blends in with nature", says former FC Gspon player Fabian Furrer.
In 2009, what had been a slate of dirt and gravel was given a complete makeover, with the addition of a pitch-side bar for after-game celebrations.
"Whenever there's a game, the whole village comes and helps out".
David Imboden runs after a ball that has been kicked off the pitch.
The pitch does, however, have its downsides: three very steep ones, in fact. Despite the presence of a high net around the perimeter, about five balls a game (more than 1,000 over the past 40 years) career over it and tumble hundreds of feet, prompting a high-altitude search party after the final whistle. The club spends a fortune on match balls.
Notwithstanding the difficulty of getting to the stadium, there is no shortage of teams making the effort, if only for the right to claim that they've played football at the "highest level in Europe".
There isn't enough flat land for a full-size ground, so the games take place on a slightly smaller pitch, and with slightly different rules: eight players per team rather than 11, and no offsides, which makes for a more free-flowing and frenetic match.
The view through the goal net of two players with the ball close to the line
Truth be told, though, the football on display at the Mountain Village Euros—Gspon's most famous international tournament—is not, the players would be the first to admit, of a professional quality. That's because the teams are made up of professionals of a different sort: helicopter pilots, ski instructors, butchers, web designers …
Members of the Abgottspon family cheer the team on.
Of the village's 500-odd residents, more than 100 are involved with FC Gspon in some way, "either because they're playing or their children play or they know someone who plays", says former player Andy Abgottspon. "Whenever there's a game, the whole village comes and helps out", adds his mother, Beatrix.
From left: Coach Roland, Hannes Biner, Andy, Cédric Abgottspon, Matteo, Sebastian Furrer, David
Many members of the same families have turned out for FC Gspon over the years. At a memorable Mountain Euros game between Switzerland and Spain, the team announcements read like a family roll call: "No. 1, Abgottspon. No. 2, Abgottspon. No. 3, Abgottspon". And then, for Spain: "No. 1, Rodríguez. No. 2, Rodríguez. No. 3, Rodríguez".
Patricia Furrer's (on the right, in yellow) father was a founding member of FC Gspon. Patricia now plays for the women's team, founded in 2008, while her two brothers are on the men's first team.
"It is pretty much an endless pitch that blends in with nature".
Although the standard of football played here might not be especially memorable, the experience itself is unforgettable—and, for the away team, often breathtaking, if they are not acclimatised. The air is thin at this altitude, which makes it hard for the visitors to breathe and gives the locals an advantage as the game wears on.
"For the opponents, it is harder", says FC Gspon defender Diego Abgottspon, who has played here for nearly 20 years. "If we are 5–0 down at half-time, we know we can come back and win. We are a team that is extremely strong in our hometown".
Words: Kieran Dahl
Photography: Dominic Nahr
Reported: September 2020