Luxembourg ready to try and roll the boulder uphill again

Red Lions have achieved precious little success in world football but still fight the good fight

Luxembourg’s Mathias Janisch celebrates scoring the winning goal against Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifier in 2013. Photograph: William Cherry/Presseye/Inpho

Luxembourg’s Mathias Janisch celebrates scoring the winning goal against Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifier in 2013. Photograph: William Cherry/Presseye/Inpho

 

Winston Churchill claimed “Success consists of going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm”.

If true, then Luxembourg deserve to arrive in Dublin as hot favourites to win the 2022 World Cup. Sadly for Luxembourg, their enthusiasm for entering football’s greatest competition is inversely proportional to their success in it.

Three countries have participated in all 21 Fifa World Cup qualifying campaigns (Group A rivals Ireland and Portugal being the others) but only Luxembourg have failed to qualify every time.

Despite being nicknamed the ‘Red Lions’, Luxembourg rarely manage much of a roar and are as likely to win the Eurovision Song Contest as they are to win a World Cup qualifier (five victories in both) despite not entering the former competition since 1994. In fact, Luxembourg’s footballers always ended up on ‘nul points’ until they finally secured their first victory by beating Portugal 4-2 in 1961.

No player from Luxembourg has ever played in the Premier League although that may soon change. Norwich City, who lead the Championship by eight points, have Danel Sinani on their books although the winger is currently completing a season long loan at Belgian side Waasland-Beveren.

A number of the Luxembourg squad are playing at a high level including Leandro Barreiro (Mainz), Gerson Rodrigues (Dynamo Kiev) and captain Laurent Jans (Standard Liege).

Their most promising player remains Vincent Thill, who in March 2016 became Luxembourg’s youngest ever international when he made his debut against Bosnia and Herzegovina aged just 16 years and one month.

Thill comes from an extraordinary footballing family as his older brothers Sébastien and Olivier have both played and scored for Luxembourg and all three siblings are included in the squad travelling to Dublin.

Their parents Serge and Nathalie both represented Luxembourg without managing an international goal between them – their mother at least has the reasonable excuse of being a goalkeeper.

The best player to represent the Grand Duchy remains Barcelona star Miralem Pjanic, who spent much of his childhood in Luxembourg and who played for the country at both Under 17 and Under 19 level before declaring for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It says much about both countries’ recent difficulty in holding on to their brightest stars that a similar battle between Ireland and Luxembourg over teenage prodigy Ryan Johansson, who has represented both at underage level, ended with the Sevilla midfielder declaring for Sweden.

Perfect record

Luxembourg is one of the few countries against whom Ireland enjoy a perfect record having won all five previous meetings. However, when the sides last met in September 1987 Armin Krings silenced Lansdowne Road by giving Luxembourg the lead before a late Paul McGrath goal gave the hosts a narrow 2-1 victory that would prove crucial to Ireland’s qualification for Euro 88 as group winners.

Despite not playing Ireland for 34 years, Stephen Kenny will be familiar with a number of the visitors as his first match in charge of the Ireland Under-21 team was a 3-0 home victory over Luxembourg in a European qualifier in March 2019.

In the past the completely open draw for European competitions saw sides from Luxembourg regularly suffer heavy beatings, most famously in 1971 when FC Jeunesse Hautcharage drew defending champions Chelsea in the first round of the European Cup Winners Cup.

After the draw Chelsea manager Dave Sexton promised to send spies to prepare a dossier on Hautcharage, a prospect which provoked much laughter at a club later described by the Guardian as “a village team featuring four brothers, a one-armed striker, a bespectacled midfielder, two players over the age of 40 and a 15-year-old on the bench”.

Hautcharage lost the home leg 8-0 after which Sexton, with admirable diplomacy, declared himself “pleased to have got eight goals away from home”. Hautcharage were overwhelmed 13-0 at Stamford Bridge to complete a 21-0 aggregate which 50 years on remains a European record defeat.

Thanks to the forensic seeding now used by Uefa, teams from Luxembourg are regular visitors to Ireland. A personal highlight occurred in 2015 when UCD secured their only ever European victory to eliminate F91 Dudelange from the Europa League.

This created such excitement on campus that Kevin Burke wrote ‘One Night in Dudelange’ – probably the only book ever written about the qualifying rounds of the Europa League. As their name indicates F91 Dudelange were only formed in 1991 but won immediate promotion from the second tier ‘Division of Honour’ to the National League which they now dominate having won the title 15 times since 2000. In 2018 Dudelange became the first side from Luxembourg to reach the Group Stage of the Europa League where they hosted AC Milan in their first match.

Luxembourg’s results have improved dramatically under Luc Holtz, now the third longest-serving national coach in Europe having been promoted from managing the under-21 team in 2010.

The introduction of the Nations League has been vital as it ensures that they regularly play competitive matches against countries of similar ability. In the most recent Nations League, Luxembourg won three matches and narrowly missed out on being promoted to League B.

However, their most memorable result under Holtz came in September 2013 when Luxembourg beat Northern Ireland 3-2 to secure a first home victory in a World Cup qualifier for over 40 years.

In a qualifier clash four years ago Luxembourg drew 0-0 with future world champions France in Toulouse a result which Holtz described simply as “a day of glory for Luxembourg football”.

On Saturday night football’s greats enthusiasts Luxembourg return to Lansdowne Road to play a country they have never beaten in a competition they have never qualified for.

To help end such a run of persistent failure they could draw inspiration from tennis player Vitas Gerulaitis. In 1980 Gerulaitis finally ended a run of 16 consecutive defeats against his great rival Jimmy Connors.

Ever the showman Gerulaitis came into the post-match press conference carrying a bottle of champagne saying: “Let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row”.

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