Life of Luxe

Luxembourg hadn’t won a World Cup qualifier for 36 years – but that didn’t save Switzerland in Zurich. Ben Lyttleton reports

Köbi Kuhn was always tolerated rather than loved during his seven years as Switzerland coach, but the knives are already out for his replacement Ottmar Hitzfeld, just two months into his reign, after last month’s 2‑1 home World Cup qualifying defeat to Luxembourg. Embarrassing, ­embarrassing, embarrassing was the headline in Der Bund, while tabloid Blick claimed that only Hitzfeld’s past club glories were keeping him from the sack.

Over in Luxembourg, the mood was one of quiet jubilation. The country is the 175th largest in the world (and the only Grand Duchy) and its inhabitants are not given to huge outpourings of public emotion. The country’s main paper, La Voix du Luxembourg, had the headline ­Extraordinaire! on its front page, to mark a first World Cup win since beating Turkey in 1972. 

Although 50 of the 200 fans who made the trip to Switzerland joined the players in a celebratory drink in a local pub near the stadium, no one met the squad when they arrived back from Zurich the next morning. That is only to be expected for a country that recently had 17 fans at the top-flight match between Swift Hesperange and ­Grevenmacher. Such is the lack of quality in the local league, what football fans there are prefer to follow the Bundesliga.

Cycling and tennis are the main sports in Luxembourg and the country is successful in both. Three Luxembourger cyclists, including twins Frank and Andy Schleck, were seeded in this year’s Tour de France top 12, while Gilles Müller reached the US Open quarter-finals before losing to eventual winner Roger Federer (taking him to two tie-breaks, which is more than Andy Murray managed in the final). Both events were marked with a short message of congratulation from Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who did the same after the Switzerland win.

Coach Guy Hellers has only two professionals in the side and deserves much of the credit. He had sensed an improvement in the performance in the 3‑0 defeat to Greece four days before the Swiss game. “We played well and it was three individual mistakes that cost us,” he said. “We cut out those mistakes against Switzerland and you saw what happened.” The players stuck rigidly to Hellers’ 4-5-1 system and Jeff Strasser, the captain and best player, did the rest, scoring the opener and setting up the winner. “Although we travel to matches like this fearing the worst, as the game went on, you felt that Luxembourg would win, as their confidence improved and the Swiss got worse and worse,” said La Voix’s football correspondent, Jean-François Colin. “Often the team just play terrible football, but all of them played above their level against Switzerland and the result was deserved.”

Whether it can happen again is a moot point: the Luxembourger FA are desperate for more players to play abroad to improve themselves, but the money on offer for playing at home has tempted them to stay. Coffee company Lavazza backs perennial champions Dudelange, whose coach Michel Leflochmoan has signed four players from his former side Excelsior Virton in Belgium’s second division. The standard of play is much better in Belgium, but the salary is half as good: Dudelange’s players (who include one-time France international Tony Vairelles) earn around €4,000 per month, twice as much as they would in Belgium. California-based computer magnate Gerald Lopez backs the country’s oldest club, Fola Esch, who are the only team with a chance of toppling Dudelange’s hegemony.

The FA president is Paul Philipp, who spent 16 years as national coach and has established a football school with the intention of producing players good enough to move abroad. It only opened three years ago – to grumbles from sports fans who wanted to see alternative investment in a cycling project – but its benefits may be seen soon: nearby German side Freiburg are already interested in two 14-year-olds. Philipp’s relationship with Hellers is seen as crucial to the national team’s success, but if the side can string together more great results, then the coach may be tempted by an offer from Germany or Belgium, where he played with great ­distinction for Standard Liège.

In the short term, that does not seem too likely: Luxembourg’s next opponents are Israel and the team have four players missing through suspension, including the talismanic Strasser. “It was great to beat Switzerland but we will probably go and lose 4-0 to Israel,” said Colin, adding a harsh dose of reality to the fairytale. 

From WSC 261 November 2008