Manchester United opponents Young Boys a side reborn after years of failure
Veteran Manchester United fans will remember the feeling of winning a title after a long drought. When Sir Alex Ferguson's men secured the Premier League trophy in 1993, it had been 26 years since the club's previous success in 1967.
But United's opponents in the Champions League on Wednesday, Swiss side Young Boys, can top that. Their fans waited 32 years before claiming their first title since 1986 (when Fergie was still in charge at Aberdeen) last season.
A club with a storied past -- winning six titles between 1900-1930, then four back-to-back from 1957-1960 -- Young Boys have been the eternal losers of Swiss football over the last three decades. Since the Swiss Cup success of 1987, they have won nothing. The team from Bern had gradually become the joke of the nation and a special word was invented to express their misfortunes.
The German term veryoungboysen means the ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. One of the most famous examples happened in 2008 when Young Boys seemed destined to finish top, but lost three times in the last five fixtures to enable FC Basel to leapfrog them.
It was even more painful in 2010 as Young Boys led the league throughout the season and had a 13-point gap at a one stage. They were still three points ahead of Basel with two games to go, but were thrashed 5-1 at Lucerne and then lost to their direct rivals at home on the last matchday to see the title slip away once more.
It even followed them to the Champions League in 2010. Harry Redknapp's Tottenham team sensationally trailed 3-0 after just 28 minutes in Bern in the Champions League qualifiers, but Young Boys then fell apart. Spurs scored twice to lose 3-2 in the first leg but then thrashed their opponents 4-0 at White Hart Lane to seal a place in the group stages.
Even last season, Young Boys totally outplayed CSKA Moscow in the Champions League qualifiers, but failed to score, going down 1-0 in the first leg thanks to a comical own goal from Nuhu Kasim in injury time and 2-0 in the second leg. Young Boys fans openly wept in the stands as their team once again failed, but they can't have been surprised given the team's history.
Few believed that anything would change in 2017-18, but Young Boys broke their hoodoo to become Swiss champions in emphatic fashion.
Such an outcome was especially impressive because the club's owners (the Rihs brothers, Andy and Hans-Ueli) had cut the budget in the summer of 2017 after becoming disillusioned with the long history of failures.
Former Switzerland international and sporting director Christoph Spycher, helped by the head of recruiting, ex-Borussia Dortmund superstar Stephane Chapuisat, built a competitive squad despite losing a couple of star players in Denis Zakaria and Yoric Ravet. Making a transfer profit of around £15m, having spent less than £5m, nobody expected much.
But, as Basel experienced their own difficulties, Young Boys pounced. Not only did they take a healthy lead, but the Austrian coach Adi Hutter openly stated in February: "We are convinced that we can become Swiss champions."
Then, just when history suggested they would fall apart as usual, they didn't. The title was secured with four games to go, and Young Boys finished 15 points ahead of Basel. While they missed out on the domestic double, losing to 10-man FC Zurich in the Cup final in typical veryoungboysen style, the whole atmosphere at the club changed and they have a great deal of momentum this season, with their trophy drought behind them.
Even losing the magnificent Hutter to Eintracht Frankfurt in the summer hasn't halted their progress and they have won six out of six in the league so far. The Austrian manager favoured high pressing and quick transition after winning the ball, and the style has remained similar under the new coach, the relatively inexperienced 39-year-old Gerardo Seoane.
"Seoane was 'the chosen one' by Spycher, who didn't make any mistakes during two years in charge," RTS commentator David Lemos tells ESPN FC. "Young Boys are liberated and feel that everything is going their way at the moment."
Spycher, who ended his playing career at Young Boys, is immensely popular with fans, but nobody can compete with the biggest crowd favourite: Guillaume Hoarau.
"Guillaume is not only the best striker, but the soul and the leader of the team," adds Lemos. "He is clever, funny off the pitch, and decisive on it. People in Bern absolutely love him."
The 34-year-old Reunion-born striker was once considered a potential star. Signed by Paris Saint-Germain in 2008 and capped five times by France at the beginning of the decade, his career tapered off after that and saw him move to Chinese Super League side Dalian Yifang before returning with Bordeaux a year later. But Hoarau flourished after joining Young Boys in 2014 and is now approaching a century of goals for the Swiss outfit.
Two of his most important goals came against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League qualifiers last month, which took Young Boys to the group stages for the first time ever. And the way he did it was symbolic of what the team now represent.
Zagreb were favourites to go through after a 1-1 draw in Switzerland in the first leg, and outplayed their opponents at home in the return, leading 1-0 at half-time. But that is the thing with Young Boys lately: after decades of losing when playing well, they can now win when playing poorly. Hoarau struck twice in three minutes -- and that was that. The visitors won 2-1.
That is why they will be so dangerous against Manchester United on Wednesday. Young Boys are a side reborn. United, who lost against Basel in their two recent visits to Switzerland, should take note -- there may not be a use for the term veryoungboysen any more.