At the end of the 1990s, the Luxembourg Football Federation (FLF) found itself at a crossroads. It was the end of the road for the generation that managed to beat future European championship runner up the Czech Republic in 1995--Guy Hellers (Standard de Liège), Robby Langers (Nice, Cannes…), Jeff Saibene (Aarau in Switzerland)…And apart from the iconic Jeff Strasser (Metz, Kaiserslautern, Borussia Mönchengladbach…) the next generation was void of genuine talent. No one really seemed to be able to rise to a professional level abroad.
It was in this context that the idea of creating a national training centre arose.
“With the aim of continuously training promising young people. And to try to avoid having that hole, like the one we were living at that time,” says Paul Philipp, current president of the Luxembourg Football Federation (FLF), and at that time had been the national team coach since 1985. “We then went to see what was being done everywhere else in terms of training, to find inspiration…”
In 1998 the French team had just been crowned world champions for the first time and would go on to claim a European championship title in 2000. This was down to its “French-style” training centres which had made such an impression on the rest of the world, notably the national football institute at Clairefontaine, through which some of the best French players had passed.
“So, we didn’t have to go very far to find inspiration. We started from that base. But by adapting it to the Luxembourg sauce…”, Philipp says with a smile.
The idea was to train the best young talent in the country, during the week in the FLF facilities, while allowing these kids to play in the league at weekends for their clubs. Needless to say, convincing them to follow this genuine revolution was not that easy…
Started at the cusp of the new century, the project was gradually implemented as the Mondercange site itself was being developed. Today the site is spread over five hectares and houses a large 3,400m2 building for the young players and that also houses the offices of the federation. It was built with very little public money.
“We started about 15 years ago working with only two age groups, ranging from 16 to 19 before progressing step by step. We have been running at full speed for a dozen years. Children arrive at our home in Mondercange, at our football school, from the age of 12. But we train them from the age of 9, thanks to regional training in four different sectors of the country,” Philipp explains.
The lower age groups comprise between 40 and 50 children, to provide the pyramid with a solid foundation. A total of between 150 and 200 youngsters travel to Mondercange every day of the week.
One of the special things about the football school is that it picks up these 150 to 200 young people from schools all over the country every day to take them to train at Mondercange, and then takes them home again at night.
“We have a service of 12 to 14 shuttles that criss-cross the country. The first young people arrive at around 2:30 pm-3 pm. They train with our graduate coaches, but they are also supervised in their studies by educators. They are also in regular contact with their teachers.”
But Mondercange is not a boarding school. “For the simple reason that a quick survey told us that virtually no one would be interested in this formula. We are in Luxembourg, nothing is really far away…” the president of the FLF says with a laugh.
It was the size of the country that made such a policy possible. And it has borne fruit. It is evidenced in the results obtained in recent years by the Luxembourg national team. Then there is the unprecedented situation that about thirty players trained in Luxembourg are now playing abroad. Never seen before in Luxembourg.
“But more than our results, what impresses our opponents is our way of playing, the quality of our game,” slips a Paul Philipp who says he has been receiving more and more praise from abroad. “And when some see a young man like Barreiro blazing in Mainz, they ask us if he was trained in Mainz…”, the FLF supremo laughs.
Indeed, observers seem truly intrigued by the Luxembourg federation’s set up. “People are wondering how we managed to move forward in this way when the size of our country has not changed…” Philip continues.
UEFA and Fifa, the European and world federations, cite this small country as an example, even sending delegations to see how Luxembourg managed to undertake such a revolution.
Paul Philipp knows the answer and is unhesitant. “Without the establishment of this football school, Luxembourg football would be light years away from where it is today.”
But he also knows that to progress, Luxembourg football must continue to evolve. His teams will therefore always “spy” on what is being done best elsewhere. In 2019, the playing surface of all the Mondercange pitches was relaid with latest generation synthetic surfaces. Just like in La Masia, FC Barcelona’s famous youth training centre. And there is still plenty of unused ground at the Mondercange site…
But the “project” that could be the most striking is that of women’s football, which is gaining visibility all over the world. Luxembourg is taking an interest, too.
“We are starting to work on training young girls under the auspices of Dan Santos, the national team coach and his staff,” Philipp says. “We are far from being at the same stage as the boys, of course. There is not yet a ‘national pool’ of top players in each age category.”
But the FLF has U17 and U19 selections. And it has two regional training sessions per week in place, which can be attended from 12 or 13 years old.
“We are in the detection phase. Gender diversity exists until a certain age, but in the medium term, we would like to organise youth championships exclusively for girls. To create the largest possible base for the future pyramid. It’s important if you want to work well…”
This article was originally written in French for Paperjam and has been translated and edited for Delano.