WHY LUXEMBOURG’S WORLD CUP QUALIFIER VICTORY OVER IRELAND SHOULD BE A SURPRISE TO NO ONE
Saturday night’s result in Dublin will dominate headlines across the footballing world, but Luxembourg as a nation have been building impressively for several years.
Of course, the Republic of Ireland didn’t cover themselves in glory in the 1-0 defeat, as their winless competitive run stretched to 13 with Stephen Kenny’s job seeming in real danger, but forget all that for a few minutes.
From F91 Dudelange reaching the Europa League group stage two seasons in a row to a couple of excellent Nations League campaigns, football in Luxembourg is improving at a rate that not many have noticed.
For a country that’s home to just 600,000 people, similar to the population of a city like Bradford or Sheffield, their rise is quite incredible.
Luxembourg have been represented on the international stage longer than most, first appearing in World Cup qualification in 1934, but have only won more than one match in a single qualifying campaign on one occasion.
The foundations for these improvements were first set back in 2001 as the country with one of the world’s highest GDPs decided to use that to invest in football in the form of a national academy in Mondercange.
This central school, as well as several club-based programmes set up by the forward-thinking FLF (Fédération Luxembourgeoise de Football), have produced the best national team Luxembourg has ever seen.
As with any academy system, it takes time to see the fruits of the process and that really came in the first edition of the Nations League.
Manager Luc Holtz first took charge in 2010 having spent his whole career in the landlocked nation and after picking up the odd competitive win here and there, most notably against Northern Ireland, he guided his team to three wins and a draw in the new UEFA tournament in 2018.
This was exactly what the Nations League was set up for, to give the lesser teams more opportunities for success, and although Luxembourg narrowly missed out on promotion to Division C, those results gave them the confidence to progress further.
Meanwhile, on the club stage, F91 Dudelange had just become the first Luxembourgish club to play in the Europa League group stage, beating the likes of Legia Warsaw and CFR Cluj in the qualifiers to do so.
The fact that Dudelange had played in Europe in every single season since the turn of the century and had only ever won four two-legged ties tells you all you need to know about the scale of this progress.
They were handed three huge clubs, Olympiakos, Milan and Betis, and although they could only pick up one point, the windfall from a run like this was massive and was another stepping stone.
That came a couple of years after Progrès Niederkorn’s shock win over Rangers in the same competition, and the notable results kept coming as Dudelange unbelievably did it again in 2019-20.
The 14-time national champions were shocked by Valletta in the first round of the Champions League, but took advantage of dropping into the second-tier competition once again, and this time had an easier draw.
They beat Ararat-Armenia on penalties to make it into the group stage for the second year running, and picked up a win on this occasion with a thrilling 4-3 victory over former Champions League quarter-finalists APOEL.
Although the Stade Jos Nosbaum club finished bottom again, the coffers were boosted further by the visit of Sevilla to Luxembourg.
Their four representatives in European competitions this season didn’t have the best of times, with Dudelange failing to qualify after the curtailed 2019-20 campaign, but the new Europa Conference League should be another innovative move that helps these nations progress further.
Dudelange will be well-placed to reach the group stage of that in its inaugural staging next season, but Fola Esch currently lead the domestic league and may also be in with a shout.
It’s all very exciting for the clubs, but arguably even more so for the national team after Gerson Rodrigues’ late winner sealed that win at the Aviva Stadium.
Their qualification bid for Euro 2020 didn’t go as hoped despite an opening win against Lithuania, but arguably the national team’s most successful campaign so far came in the Nations League last autumn.
Having been bumped up to Division C as a result of the restructuring, they beat Montenegro, Cyprus and Azerbaijan and were favourites for a sensational promotion to Division B at one point before picking up just one draw from the last two games.
However, that showed more signs of improvement before the 2022 World Cup schedule began. Having been drawn with both Portugal and Serbia for the second summer tournament running, they’ll be looking for revenge and may just get some if the Ireland performance is anything to go by.
Although it seems unthinkable, with more spots than ever available in final tournaments, Luxembourg qualifying for a major final could be a possibility in the coming years.
Just seven of the 25 in the current squad ply their trade in Luxembourg and have attracted attention from elsewhere, showing the success of the aforementioned academies with exciting talents like Danel Sinani on Norwich’s books and 21-year-old Vincent Thill playing in Portugal.
There’s also Leandro Barreiro at Mainz, Maxime Chanot at New York City and of course Rodrigues at Dynamo Kyiv. All that means is that the team has been a danger for a while, but it may have taken a result like Saturdays for most to realise that.
Luxembourg is a nation becoming more and more significant in international football, and although top-level football as we know it may be dead on Wednesday, the lesser nations are getting increasing amounts of opportunities to inspire generations to come.