“An Orient Tour” – Neuchâtel Xamax in Bahrain & Saudi Arabia

First off – the title. Not my words, the words of Swiss newspaper L’Express on February 11th, 1976. I imagine this is as outdated in Swiss French as they are in English.

Photo from BNA Zaman

By Daniel Cochran

In my continuing exploration of Bahraini football history, I came across a gallery on the excellent BNA Zaman website a few weeks back, titled “Ahli Club vs Swiss team, 1976”. A few things stood out: first, the Swiss team weren’t named and had no distinguishing badge on their kit – always annoying. Thankfully, a quick call for help on Swiss Football Twitter sorted that out (thanks all!) – two-time Swiss champions Neuchâtel Xamax were the mystery team.

Second, the “Ahli Club” team are wearing the Bahrain national team away strip. A little more digging (thanks to Bahraini football twitter this time) revealed that the photo was mislabeled, and the photo is actually of the national team.

Finally, why are a Swiss team in the Gulf mid-season? Down another rabbit-hole we go.

It seems that two magical words might be the solution to this puzzle: winter break.

Nowadays the Swiss league has about 6 weeks without football during the worst of the weather, in 1976 the break was over 3 months. With freezing temperatures and no league matches, it’s no surprise that teams would look towards warmer climes. I know if someone gave me the choice between a balmy Bahraini holiday and a session on a frozen Swiss training pitch I’d have my bags packed by breakfast.

With this in mind, Xamax made the trip to the Gulf to take on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (twice) in a trio of friendly matches. It wasn’t just a benefit for the Swiss though, the 4th Gulf Cup was fast approaching and the two Middle Eastern sides wanted to be sharp for their trip to Qatar in March.

The trip was billed as an “Orient Tour”, and began in Bahrain with a hard-fought 1-0 victory against the hosts. French newspapers described Xamax as dominating physically, despite the 23° heat, noting also that the visitors “took the match seriously”, making no spurious substitutions during the 90 minutes. Jean-Michel Guillaume scored the only goal.

Bahrain vs. Neuchâtel Xamax match report (L’Express, February 11th, 1976) Thanks to both @XamaxFCS_DE and @samvarone on Twitter for this.

Next up was a trip to Riyadh to face Saudi Arabia in front of 12,800 spectators. The match (played on artificial grass) was another tight one, but Xamax again prevailed against their hosts, former international Walter Müller (a one-cap wonder) scoring the winner in the 62nd minute.

Saudi Arabia vs. Neuchâtel Xamax match report (L’Express, February 13th, 1976)

The final game in this brief jaunt was another game against Saudi in Riyadh. Although the Swiss newspaper (perhaps a tad biased) claims that Xamax dominated the play again, it was the home team who came out on top in another 1-0 (the Saudi scorer’s name is not noted), this time in front of a huge 15,400 fans (for a mid-season friendly – madness!). Xamax were accused of “abusing the sideways pass” by Swiss media, allowing their opponents to regroup. Spurs fans nod knowingly.

Saudi Arabia vs. Neuchâtel Xamax match report (L’Express, February 14th, 1976)

Then it was back to the Switzerland, no doubt some well-earned hot chocolate for Xamax, and on to the Gulf Cup in Qatar for the two hosts.

So how did this mid-season tour work out for everyone? Well Xamax finished 6th out of 14 in the Swiss Nationalliga. Bahrain and Saudi went on to finish 4th and 5th respectively in the Gulf Cup a month later.

Thanks to Twitterers @silvanlerch, @eaststandupper, @samvarone, @maemae_sykora, @aulit_z, @leonardthurre and of course Xamax themselves (@XamaxFCS_DE) for their Swiss knowledge, and to @theoldbahrain, @7sainjanahi and @6600bahrian on Instagram for their Bahraini nous.

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