Luxembourg Football: Emerging From its Neighbours’ Shadows

Until last week Luxembourg was more famous for being a tax haven for the world’s wealthy and has been treated with suspicion since the Global Financial Crisis. With a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) that is ranked number one in the world, the nation would for once have its five minutes of fame in the sporting arena last Tuesday evening. A historic 3-2 victory at home against Northern Ireland gave the country its first World Cup qualifying win since 1972 and only its fourth ever. With just over half a million residents the country is bordered by France, Belgium and Germany and its football culture has been influenced by all three nations. It’s performance and status on the world football stage has however not mirrored its neighbours’ traditionally strong record.

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Image courtesy of The Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com

Founded in 1908 the Luxembourg Football Federation has responsibility for the national team. Their first game came against France in 1914 resulting in an expected 4-1 defeat but revenge would be sweet three years later as they recorded their first ever victory, stealing the game in an entertaining 5-4 win. Luxembourg have never qualified for either the World Cup or European Championships, despite five Olympic performances, and rare victories are given the sort of fanfare reserved for World Cup winners.

Despite not making the headlines often the relative ‘Golden Age’ of Luxembourg football came either side of the World War Two years when they chalked up three consecutive wins against Germany and Netherlands in 1939 and Belgium in 1945; with Belgium punishing such embarrassment inflicting a 7-0 revenge defeat a year later. Striker Léon Mart fuelled this small portion of success and is still the nation’s all-time leading goal scorer with 16 goals in 24 matches between 1933 and 1946.

The post-war years passed with little animation until the arrival of the Luxembourg Football Federation’s ‘Golden Player’ of the past 50 years. Creative midfielder Louis Pilot began his career at home but would enjoy a 15-year stint in Belgium’s top flight for heavyweights Standard Liege and Royal Antwerp. Pilot even earned two shortlist nominations in successive years for the coveted World Player of the Year Award, the Ballon d’Or, finishing joint 18th in 1968. With Pilot leading the team Luxembourg managed to beat Portugal, Netherlands and Mexico over the course of his international career but when he retired the impact was clear. Luxembourg suffered a succession of defeats throughout the early seventies, something not uncommon, but it was the nature of these four, six and 8-0 losses that were demoralising.

From 1980 to 1995 the team could not even scrape a friendly victory until a 1-0 win over Malta followed soon by a giant killing of the Czech Republic. National pride would remain unwavering and cause for celebration came in 1989 when Robby Langers, playing for French club Nice, gained a shortlist nomination for the Ballon d’Or and finished joint 23rd along with legends Maldini and Koeman. Remarkably just two years later another Luxembourg national, Guy Hellers of Belgium’s Standard Liege, contributed to a golden era for the club and picked up a 21st place finish for the Ballon. Both players stood head and shoulders above their compatriots at a time when the national team could not even buy a win. Twelve years of ‘Groundhog Day’ style defeat followed until a win against Gambia in 2007 and then a return to the traditional barren spell. Then in 2011 the nation and media erupted in celebration as Luxembourg beat the highly fancied Albania 2-1, a result still talked about in coffee shops and bars today.

Despite a 6-0 hammering by Israel their current World Cup Qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014 has been encouraging and a second bottom Group F finish will be an achievement. To date with three draws, some marginal defeats to the likes of Portugal and last week’s victory against Northern Ireland, the gap between notable victories appears to be closing. Half of the current squad play their football domestically with the rest spread across Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Scandanavia. Aurélien Joachim, the scorer of the winning goal in that famous victory against Albania in 2011 still leads the attack with 43 caps and also scored the opener against Northern Ireland. Number 10 midfielder and captain Rene Peters is the most capped player in the squad with 89 appearances closely followed by veteran defender Eric Hoffmann and the evergreen, and ever busy, goalkeeper Jonathan Joubert. The balance is kept by a young homegrown squad with the remaining majority in their early twenties.

These youngsters play their club football in the Luxembourg National Division, a 14-team competition first played in 1910. A traditional European league format is followed with the bottom teams relegated to the ever so formally titled second tier, ‘Division of Honour’. Fans are proud of its long history and there is one clear long-term leader, Jeunesse Esch, taking 28 titles between 1921 and 2010. The last decade however has not been so distinguished; with just two titles a new powerhouse has emerged. F91 Dudelange, only founded in 1991, have won ten championships in 14 seasons, but were pipped to this year’s crown by the unfashionable CS Fola Esch, breaking a drought of 83 years. Dudelange are the product of three struggling teams and have managed to attract a cluster of overseas talent helping them in their cause and even reached the second qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League in 2005, a remarkable feat for a Luxembourg club.

The future of Luxembourg football has been given some priority despite their consistent reputation as plucky underdogs. In 2000 the Football Federation opened a centre of excellence, Centre de Formation National, to encourage and develop young talent but concerns have been vocal over the last decade that domestic clubs were signing too many foreign players, a common complaint across European football. The most celebrated players in Luxembourg’s history such as Pilot, Langers and Hellers all left their home to play in Belgium and France, an allure too strong for the ambitious youngsters and an obstacle the domestic league can still do little about in the current era. As talented players leave, they are replaced more often by foreigners. At national level Luxembourg will benefit from their youngsters’ experience abroad, but desperately need more memorable evenings like last Wednesday to get closer to the promised land; a major finals tournament appearance.

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