Na­tions League of­fers new gen­er­a­tion a Euro dream

Grand Duchy top the ta­ble with max­i­mum points

World Soccer - - Eye Witness -

The crowd at Stade Josy Barthel – which is named af­ter the 1,500m Lux­em­bourg run­ner who won gold at the 1952 Olympics – was big­ger than would nor­mally be ex­pected for a game against Moldova. And it was also far more ner­vous than usual.

No coun­try has com­peted in more qual­i­fy­ing cam­paigns for the World Cup and Eu­ro­pean Cham­pi­onship with­out ever mak­ing the fi­nals, but with League D of the UEFA Na­tions League of­fer­ing the win­ners a place at Euro 2020, the cur­rent Lux­em­bourg side is fac­ing a com­plete un­known: ex­pec­ta­tion from lo­cal fans and me­dia.

Luc Holtz’s team have been im­prov­ing grad­u­ally and picked up six points in the qual­i­fiers for this sum­mer’s World Cup, even man­ag­ing an epic 0-0 draw in France. But as Lux­em­bourg Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion (LFF) pres­i­dent Paul Philipp ad­mits, de­feat in his coun­try’s open­ing Na­tions League game would have made the re­turn match and the re­main­ing fix­tures with Be­larus and San Marino “very bor­ing”.

How­ever, af­ter a ner­vous start, Lux­em­bourg went on to dom­i­nate their vis­i­tors and win 4-0 be­fore tak­ing a de­served lap of hon­our in front of the long-serv­ing fans.

“I think this is maybe the most ex­cit­ing time,” says Philipp.

And things were to get even bet­ter

three days later when a 3-0 win away to San Marino put Lux­em­bourg top of their group, two points clear of sec­ond-place Be­larus, whom they visit on Oc­to­ber 12.

But it is not just the na­tional side’s progress and dreams of a fi­nals de­but that has got the coun­try ex­cited. With a new sta­dium un­der con­struc­tion and a club in the group stage of the Europa League for the first time, th­ese are heady times for foot­ball in Lux­em­bourg.

At do­mes­tic level, in­vest­ment from lo­cal ty­coon Flavio Becca at F91 Dude­lange has pro­duced a seis­mic event in the club game.

“Our tar­get was al­ways Europa League qual­i­fi­ca­tion but this has come early,” ad­mits Dude­lange board mem­ber Manou Go­er­gen.

Af­ter an early Cham­pi­ons League elim­i­na­tion at the hands of Hun­gary’s Vidi, Dude­lange pro­duced a series of rapidly im­prov­ing per­for­mances to knock­out Drita of Kosovo, Poland’s Le­gia War­saw and the Ro­ma­nian cham­pi­ons CFR Cluj.

And af­ter book­ing a group-stage place along­side Olympiakos, Mi­lan and Real Betis, Becca’s nou­veau riche side will not only be rub­bing shoul­ders with some Eu­ro­pean heavy­weights, they have also earned them­selves a huge wind­fall.

While de­feat to Vidi in the Cham­pi­ons League first qual­i­fy­ing round earned

€ 540,000 it is Dude­lange’s Europa League qual­i­fi­ca­tion that is the real earner, with the club guar­an­teed

€ 2.92mil­lion plus ad­di­tional rev­enue based on TV rights. A draw would be worth a fur­ther € 190,000 and any win, how­ever un­likely, would rake in

€ 570,000. So, even if they lose all six games the club should be around € 3.5m bet­ter off.

To put that in con­text, UEFA’s lat­est fi­nan­cial bench­mark­ing re­port shows the av­er­age club turnover in Lux­em­bourg is € 700,000 a year.

Clubs in Lux­em­bourg do not have own­ers as they are of­fi­cially am­a­teur and Becca is not even Dude­lange’s pres­i­dent. But al­though his sta­tus is that of spon­sor, it is the Ital­ian-born for­mer brick­layer, who was raised in Lux­em­bourg, that is re­spon­si­ble for the club’s suc­cess. Hav­ing built a prop­erty and sport­ing em­pire that also in­cludes the Leop­ard Pro Cy­cling team and Bel­gium third-tier side Royal Ex­cel­sior Vir­ton, Becca’s sport­ing plans of­ten in­volve heavy out­lay and lit­tle in­come. The cy­cling team re­port­edly costs around € 15m, while Dude­lange’s bud­get is of­fi­cially € 2.5m a year but is widely be­lieved to be higher.

This sea­son Dude­lange signed for­mer Ger­many un­der-21 mid­fielder Mar­cAn­dre Kruska – who played more than 250 Bun­desliga games for Borus­sia Dort­mund and En­ergie Cot­tbus – and Ser­bian in­ter­na­tional de­fender Mi­lan Bi­se­vac from Metz.

With their do­mes­tic ri­vals pay­ing € 1,500 a month, Dude­lange’s full-time play­ers can earn € 10,000 a month – which means the club hoovers up play­ers at an alarm­ing rate, with be­tween 40 and 50 play­ers un­der con­tract and swathes farmed out to ri­val clubs.

For­mer do­mes­tic pow­er­house Je­unesse Esch – who have 28 na­tional

“This is a golden time, but maybe it has come too early. I think in five or six years we can be even bet­ter” Na­tional un­der-21 coach Manuel Car­doni

“Lux­em­bourg foot­ball is now de­vel­op­ing at the same rate as the na­tional team” Dude­lange board mem­ber Manou Go­er­gen

ti­tles com­pared to Dude­lange’s 14 – have half a dozen play­ers on loan from the cur­rent cham­pi­ons, but they have not won the league since 2010.

The main threat to Dude­lange’s re­cent dom­i­nance has come from Fola Esch, whose pres­i­dent Ger­ard Lopez was also chair­man of For­mula 1 team Lo­tus from 2009 to 2015 and briefly played for the club. In 2010 he brought in Jeff Strasser as coach. One of the few Lux­em­bourg­ers to make a ca­reer in a ma­jor Eu­ro­pean league, ex-Borus­sia Monchenglad­bach and Kais­er­slautern cen­tre-back Strasser led Fola to league suc­cess in 2013 and 2015. How­ever, when he left to take charge of Kais­er­slautern last year, Lopez also stood down, al­though Strasser re­turned in Au­gust.

Fola fin­ished third last sea­son be­hind Pro­gres Niederkorn, who are ben­e­fit­ting from in­vest­ment from a con­sor­tium led by lo­cal busi­ness­man Fabio Marochi.

Yet even with in­creased com­pe­ti­tion for Dude­lange, the crowds at do­mes­tic games re­main poor.

Ev­ery week, hun­dreds of fans turn their backs on the lo­cal game and board coaches bound for Bun­desliga matches. As a re­sult, Je­unesse Esch at­tract at­ten­dances of around 1,200 while Dif­fer­dange 03 and Pro­gres av­er­age be­tween 800 and 900 fans. Dude­lange only get 700 at their Stade Jos Nos­baum.

How­ever, formed from a merger of Al­liance, Stade and US in 1991, Dude­lange’s Europa League cam­paign has briefly re­versed that trend.

They moved their home games to Stade Josy Barthel in Lux­em­bourg City and in­stantly sold out, in part be­cause a ticket for all three games cost only € 125.

This was a smart PR move by Dude­lange’s out­spo­ken pres­i­dent Ro­main Schumacher and the oft-de­rided Becca, who em­ploys Lux­em­bourg­ers at both Leop­ard and Dude­lange. In the cru­cial 5-2 ag­gre­gate win over Cluj that clinched Europa League qual­i­fi­ca­tion, the goals came from two young Lux­em­bourg­ers in David Turpel and Daniel Si­nani.

De­fend­ing his own club’s dom­i­na­tion, Go­er­gen ar­gues that “there’s been in­vest­ment at Fola and Progress” and be­lieves “Lux­em­bourg foot­ball is now de­vel­op­ing at the same rate as the na­tional team”.

This sea­son three Lux­em­bourg rep­re­sen­ta­tives won through at least one round in Europe, with Fola beat­ing Pr­ishtina of Kosovo and Pro­gres get­ting past Az­eri side Ga­bala and Hun­gary’s Honved be­fore be­ing nar­rowly edged 4-3 on ag­gre­gate by Rus­sian side Ufa.

Olivier Thill of Pro­gres ob­vi­ously im­pressed Ufa as he was swiftly snapped up by the Rus­sian club for € 200,000, which is a record fee for a player in the Na­tional Divi­sion. He is one of a num­ber of young play­ers to emerge from an academy set up by the LFF in Mon­der­cange in 2000. Olivier scored in the Na­tions League against Moldova and his younger brothers Se­bastien and Vin­cent are also both se­nior in­ter­na­tion­als de­spite only be­ing teenagers. There are par­tic­u­larly high hopes for Vin­cent, with the 17-year-old mid­fielder join­ing Bay­ern Mu­nich on a tour to the US be­fore turn­ing the Ger­mans down and join­ing Metz.

Of the squad that faced Moldova, eight play­ers still el­i­gi­ble for the un­der-21 side, which is run by Manuel Car­doni who was briefly at Bayer Lev­erkusen.

“This is a golden time, but maybe it has come too early,” says Car­doni. “I think in five or six years we can be even bet­ter.”

In the past, ta­lented young Lux­em­bourg play­ers have of­ten set­tled for the easy life of work­ing in one of Europe’s most pros­per­ous coun­tries and sup­ple­ment­ing their wages with money from semi-pro­fes­sional foot­ball.

In a bid to change that, the LFF are try­ing to press promis­ing young­sters into leav­ing for pro­fes­sional clubs else­where as soon as the chance arises.

Christo­pher Martins, who is now 21, joined Lyon’s academy in 2013, and is

one of a host of academy grad­u­ates that now play abroad, in­clud­ing maxime Chanot at New York City in mlS, Chris Philipps, who was snapped up by le­gia War­saw af­ter the Pol­ish side’s europa league de­feat, and enes mah­mu­tovic, who joined mid­dles­brough then went on loan to Yeovil.

With a po­ten­tial golden gen­er­a­tion emerg­ing, the fo­cus is now firmly on the Na­tions league.

If lux­em­bourg fin­ish top of their group they will go through to the semi-fi­nals, which will be played in march 2020 at a venue that has yet to be de­cided. And with the Josy barthel due for de­mo­li­tion and a new € 60m, 9,385-seat sta­dium ready for next year the grand Duchy could of­fer to stage the games.

Host­ing matches in­volv­ing the smaller eu­ro­pean sides in a neu­tral venue would make lit­tle sense – and home ad­van­tage could prove vi­tal for one of europe’s most rapidly im­prov­ing smaller coun­tries.

Joy...Lux­em­bourg cel­e­brate scor­ing against Moldova

De­ter­mined...Dirk Carl­son of Lux­em­bourg is stopped in his tracks by Moldova’s de­fence

Em­phatic...the fi­nal score at Stade Josy Barthel

Shock...David Turpel’s penalty gives Dude­lange vic­tory over Le­gia War­saw in Poland

Euro bat­tle...Dude­lange’s Jerry Prem­peh (right) and Gon­zalo Higuain of Mi­lan

Ty­coon...Flavio Becca

derby... je­unesse esch (in black) and Fola esch

Europe ad­ven­ture... Samir Hadji of Fola Esch (in white)

out...rac­ing (in sky blue) lost to ro­ma­nia’s vi­itorul con­stanta in the europa league

eyes on the eu­ros... lux­em­bourg’s lau­rent Jans

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