Nations League offers new generation a Euro dream
Grand Duchy top the table with maximum points
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
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