Luxembourg has never qualified for the final phase of a European championship. Although the Red Lions were quarter-finalists in 1964, famously defeating the Netherlands 3-2 over two legs in the process, and only succumbing to Denmark after two draws led to a replay that they lost 0-1. But at that time only the four semi-finalists actually met for the final tournament, held in Spain. Since then, nothing. Not a sausage. That included a particularly barren period for the national team of 15 years, between 1980 and 1995, without winning a single game. Not even a friendly…
But does that mean it is outlandish to think that Red Lions could one day qualify for what is the biggest regular sporting event on the European continent? Or is it conceivable that they could succeed in imitating “little” Iceland? After all, Iceland has a population of just 300,000 inhabitants, half of that of the grand duchy. But the team famously made it to Euro 2016 in France and knocked out England, then qualified for the World Cup in Russia two years later. Iceland, and their delightfully boisterous fans with their Viking Clap, are only missing from Euro 2020 because they squandered a one goal lead against Hungary going into the last five minutes of their qualifying play-off match.
“We can draw inspiration from those Icelanders, but also from countries like Albania or Northern Macedonia, which have also qualified for a Euro. But on the mental level. Because we must not compare too much with them for the rest,” says Luxembourg national team coach Luc Holtz. “At the social and structural level, Iceland has nothing to do with us. In terms of quality of life, their situation is very different from that of Luxembourg…”
The former international, now aged 51 and in charge of the national team since 2010, refers to the fact that young Icelanders see sport as a way out. Maybe the only way to get off their island. While in Luxembourg, youngsters (usually influenced by parents) mostly choose to focus on studies, which means high-level sport is only rarely considered as a valid alternative.
This difference in mentality is reflected in the results in team sports like football, but also basketball and especially handball where the Icelandic selection is regularly in the top five rankings.
“And then, at the athletic level, we also see a big difference in size between them and us. It’s not just a stereotype…” says Holtz. “So, we don’t have to sing the praises of everything the Icelanders do. Personally, I try instead to draw what can be useful to us from different sources.”
A tactic that can be considered as having paid off in view of the results obtained in recent years by the Roud Léiwen. They have held their own in matches against countries such as France, Bulgaria, Senegal and Madagascar and beaten the likes of Hungary, Albania, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova…and most recently, in a World Cup qualifier, they beat Ireland 1-0 in Dublin in March. That was just three days prior audaciously taking the lead against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal before eventually succumbing 3-1.
Watch highlights of the victory over Ireland.
It’s a record that leaves more than one Luxembourg connoisseur dreaming. Is it really so difficult to Luxembourg qualifying for a Euro finals, now contested by 24 nations? “Honestly, if you had asked me this question ten years ago, I would have cried out. But today, I can understand it,” says Luxembourg football federation president and former national team coach Paul Philipp. “Obviously, to qualify for such a tournament, we would need a set of favourable circumstances. Especially in terms of the qualifying draw. But if chance smiled on us, the dream of going to the Euros could become a reality, yes. But without it being a clear objective.”
His manager is on the same wavelength. “The unthinkable no longer exists. Whether it’s one match or even a full qualification,” says Holtz, while adding “that you must always remain realistic and bear in mind that this kind of feat will be very difficult to achieve.”
If this feeling of impossibility no longer exists, it is partly because of a change in mentality seen among the players in the Luxembourg squad. “A few years ago, those who were called up to the national team gathered to see the buddies. Ambition was limited. The current generation is no longer like that. It plays matches with the aim of winning. That is the mentality. They want to succeed,” Philipp explains. “It’s also something we’ve been working on for four or five years, especially with the presence of a mental coach,” adds Holtz. “We boosted their confidence, reduced stress, too. And the good results have served to enhance this awareness.”
Luxembourg also currently has a generation of players like it has never known before. It is now not unusual to see a line-up with a basic eleven composed primarily of players who earn their living abroad. Marquee names in the Luxembourg squad include 25-year old Dynamo Kiev striker Gerson Rodrigues, who this season became the first Red Lion to play in the Champions League group stage. Others could be following suit before too long. Leandro Barreiro (21, who made 29 first team appearances with Mainz05 in the Bundesliga last season), Christopher “Kiki” Martins (24, double Swiss champion with Young Boys Bern) and even 21-year old Vincent Thill (who plays for Nacional Madeira, something of a yo-yo team in the Portuguese first and second divisions) have the talent. Several others are with clubs in the Dutch, Belgian or Ukrainian upper tiers. These are players who all went through the football school at the national training centre in Mondercange.
Quantity required to complement quality
“I recently came across [media] articles from my induction in 2010. And when I reread what I was saying at the time, I am even more convinced than I could never have imagined one day we would have a squad of this quality. Imagine, ten years ago, we had only one pro playing abroad…” Holtz recalls. “That has changed a lot. However, we do not yet have enough players playing at a really high level. Too many are still [playing] in minor championships.”
And to aim for something great, there still lacks quantity in quality. “After our victory in Ireland in March, I was asked if it was ‘normal’ based on our previous results. My answer was clear: no. This is still a major feat! And to succeed repeatedly, and thus to even consider being in the race for qualification for the Euros, we would now have to have a quality campaign without injuries, suspensions or other tough hits. Which is practically impossible.”
To dream bigger, Luxembourg needs an even bigger group of players. And the only way to do this is to continue to train well. If that’s the case, who knows where Luxembourg might be in ten years…
This article was originally published in French by Paperjam and has been translated and edited for Delano.