Luxembourg’s emphatic rise has created an unforeseen problem
City-state has improved its Fifa ranking but fans expect progress to continue
Luxembourg’s goalkeeper Jonathan Joubert jumps for the ball during the World Cup 2018 qualifying football match against France at The Municipal Stadium in Toulouse, southern France, on September 3, 2017. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images
Yet 17 years later, as the tiny city-state prepares to get its World Cup qualifying campaign under way in Dublin this evening, it has become necessary for the 70-year-old to temper the football expectations of an increasingly hopeful nation.
The transformation under Philipp, who played 54 times for his country as a midfielder, has been seismic. Between 2006 and 2018, Luxembourg climbed from 195th in the Fifa rankings to 82nd, a leap of more than 100 places. There hasn’t been a more emphatic rise in world football. Keeping things in perspective has been a challenge.
“We’re a village,” said Philipp. “Luxembourg is 600,000 people. We know we are never going to be world champions. I think our fans see us getting better and better over the last few years and expect it’s going to keep getting better, but it’s easier at the beginning to make big steps.
“Our problem now is to explain to our supporters that we cannot continue to progress at the same speed like we have in the last six years. We are small and we will always be small.”
Yet how to account for the LFF’s progress? The trick has been turning the country’s overwhelmingly amateur talent pool into a professional one. As recently as 20 years ago, Luxembourg’s senior national team was made up of teachers, bank employees and civil servants. Now, with the country having established links with clubs in neighbouring states, the coach Luc Holtz can choose from players in the top divisions of Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Ukraine.
The results bear witness to a doctrine of development that has been supremely administered. The days of Luxembourg being Europe’s whipping boys are long over. An early sign that things had changed came in 2017 when they held France to a goalless draw in a World Cup qualifier in Paris. Then came the inaugural Nations League, and the chance to make a serious bid to qualify for Euro 2020. They missed out on the play-offs narrowly, but it was enough to cement their place as one of Europe’s coming nations.
This season they’ve pushed on again. Victories against Cyprus, Montenegro and Azerbaijan in 2020 may not sound like the scalps of a European football heavyweight, but this is a country for whom five- and six-goal beatings were considered standard fare a few years ago. The prospect of sneaking into a major tournament finals is no longer the absurd notion it once was.
“Ten years ago we decided we needed to get more players playing in professional leagues,” said Philipp of the LFF’s work. “We needed them playing in France and in Belgium and in Germany. Right now we have 25 players in our squad. I think 95 per cent of them are playing in professional leagues.
“Our national league is a bit like you have in Ireland, it’s not really good enough on its own for there to be progress in international football. So encouraging our young players to go abroad is key.”
Not that top-flight clubs in Europe have taken a charitable view of Luxembourg. Teams didn’t come in for the country’s young players simply in order to give the national side a leg up. The first step was to improve the level of education young players receive at home. Once they’ve been given their start, the LFF takes over, centralising the football education of its most promising prospects.
“You can’t just start sending players to play at professional clubs abroad, there has to be a stage before that,” said Philipp. “We start watching players from the age of nine or 10. The best players we then bring into our national centre, and we keep them until they’re 18. They play at the weekend with their clubs, but the rest of the time they are with us. That’s where their real education takes place.
“Then when they’re 16 or 17, that’s when we start speaking to the professional clubs in our network in Belgium and in France. That’s their next step.”
One comparison that is frequently made is with the rise of Iceland, and Philipp acknowledges there is good reason for that. The island nation has a population just half that of Luxembourg’s 630,000, yet they’ve enjoyed success wildly out of proportion to their tiny size.
The LFF chief studied Iceland’s example closely when drawing up the blueprint for football in Luxembourg, but Philipp argues the comparison isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
“All the young guys in Iceland want to leave the island,” said Philipp. “They want to go to England or to Europe. It’s a mentality that we try and give to our young players. But it’s an easier life for young people in Luxembourg than it is in Iceland.
“It’s been difficult to create that professional attitude here. I’ll give you an example. I had a young kid 15 years ago who had real talent. I said you need to try and find a professional club in Belgium. His parents came to me and said, ‘Okay, but what security is there in that? What job will he do when he comes back to Luxembourg?’
“These days, our boys have the right professional attitude. But I still have to convince the parents.”