The Remarkable Rise of the Luxembourg National Team

On the 9th of September, Iceland, the perennial overachievers of the late 2010s were defeated 3-1 by Luxembourg, a team we all grew up watching get hammered by almost everyone. So, what about Luxembourg? Well, what about it? Whether you only see it fit to be used just for storage or know it exists and don’t really care about it, there is no denying that Luxembourg is a fascinating place. One of Europe’s smallest countries, just a tad smaller than the state of Rhode Island, Luxembourg’s population is roughly 13 times smaller than that of London.


The national motto of these inhabitants is “We want to remain what we are”, which in a land filled with more than 100 castles and the last grand duchy on Earth, might seem to be a staunch refusal of modernisation or innovation. However, the state of Luxembourg has always been at the forefront of the European Union, being one of its first members and being the seat of the European Court of Justice.


This blend of tradition and modernity means that the duchy has one of the world’s highest GDPs per capita and an impressive human development index. The majority of the population still live in Luxembourg City, a UNESCO World Heritage site that probably features historic shops that sell little things made of straw, but also high-tech transportation. Now this ethos of embracing modernity but in their own way has turned to football.


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The Luxembourg national football team played its first match on the 29th of October 1911 against France and the result would set the tone for most of their history, losing 4-1. In the years leading up to World War Two, as football was still in its infancy, Luxembourg managed two Olympic Games participations and the odd win against France or Belgium, but in the modern era, the team’s statistics are thoroughly bleak.


Out of an all-time total of 640 matches played they have lost a whopping 476, giving them a win ratio of 18%. The late 90s and early 2000s marked the worst decades of the team. In those years, Luxembourg went 11 years without a win between 1995 and 2006 and went a full year without scoring a goal. Having taken part in all World Cup qualifiers without ever qualifying (the only nation to have this dubious honour) Luxembourg had amassed only 8 points across all campaigns up until 2008.


The job of the national manager therefore might be viewed as a thankless task by many, but not by Paul Philipp, who managed the team for 16 years between 1985 and 2001. Prior to that, he was a professional footballer for the likes of Union Saint-Gilloise and Standard Liege. In his time at the helm of his country he tasted victory only three times and in 2004 he was adamant about changing this.


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His election to President of the Luxembourg federation came at a low point of the squad and a mere two years later they reached their lowest-ever FIFA ranking of 195th, lower even than San Marino. In his almost 20 years in charge of the federation Luxembourg have climbed to an all-time high of 82nd and are currently 89th in the world. The key to this success is as always youth development.


Philipp started playing when he was only ten and has spent his whole life in and around football. His aim is to offer the same opportunities for young players in his country. In 2001 a national academy was created, which seems to be very similar to France’s Clairefontaine. Due to Luxembourg’s small size and population, this academy practically hoovers up every talented individual in the country, as they are never too far from its doorstep.


Players aged 8-11 are scouted by the employees of the academy and the most promising ones are sent to the National Football Center, where players aged 12-18 are based. Over the decades one of the most special delights of football commentators was listing the various day jobs of national team players, who played for small nations. Whether it was Iceland, San Marino and indeed Luxembourg.


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Most of these national teams usually had to rely on semi-professional players based in their own amateur leagues to bolster the national team selection. In most cases, a core of 5-6 professionals playing outside Luxembourg was complimented by several amateurs playing back home.


Nowadays, the situation is completely reversed with almost all players being based abroad in stronger leagues. At the youth level, the situation has evolved even further along this route, with around 50-60 teenagers playing in France, Germany or Belgium. The story of the Luxembourg national team smacks of plagiarism when taking a look at Iceland a few years ago, and Paul Philipp has indeed visited Iceland on fact-finding missions two or three times.


Due to their comparable situations, the Luxembourg Football Federation no doubt learned from their northern counterparts and implemented these lessons to great effect. Their standout player at the moment is Leandro Barreiro, who is currently playing for Mainz and has a market value of €14 million according to Transfermarkt. Alongside him, 5 other players are valued at more than a million and English audiences might be familiar with Danel Sinani, who spent three years contracted to Norwich and is currently playing for St. Pauli.


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The slow and steady rise of Luxembourg’s National Team might have gone under the radar, but the future looks even brighter. The under-17 side qualified for the Euros in 2022 and the senior side has seen a marked improvement in their performances. In 2017 they drew future world champions France, in 2021 they beat Ireland and this year they were looking to cause a major upset in their Euros qualifying campaign.


They finished their campaign in third in their group with 17 points after winning games against Liechtenstein, Bosnia and Iceland. And I know people will point out their harsh losses against Portugal, conceding 15 goals across two games, but games like these are slowly becoming outliers. Instead of the usual drubbings by more than four goals, Luxembourg are turning those games into 3-1 losses against the superpowers and more often than not draws against middling teams, like their 3-3 draw against Turkey last year.


In the UEFA Nations League they spent the past two seasons narrowly missing promotion to the B league by just two points on two occasions. This dramatic upturn in the team’s performances means that their supporters are all of a sudden glad to attend a game, as their team might stand a chance of not being totally demolished. This means that their new state-of-the-art venue, the Stade de Luxembourg is filled to the brim and the 9,386 seats might soon prove too few if the squad maintains its trajectory.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Gualter Fatia / Getty Images