Is football on the rise in Luxembourg?

Luxembourg. It’s a country that has played an important role in numerous events throughout European history, from the battle for supremacy in the Holy Roman Empire to involvement as a founding member of the United Nations, NATO, and the current European Union.

The country will now look to extend their significance throughout European history – with their first potential qualification for the European Championships in Germany, come the summer of 2024.

Luxembourg currently sit third in their qualification group, but only the top two will qualify for the 2024 tournament. This will surely surprise the vast majority of football fans, who will remember the country as a whipping boy for the majority of footballing nations. However, in recent years, the Red Lions have made major strides within the international scene, claiming a number of famous results – including beating the Republic of Ireland in Dublin in 2021, and holding France to a goalless draw during a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup.

But how has the country made this transformation?

This meteoric rise has occurred under the stewardship of Paul Phillip, the President of the Luxembourg Football Federation (FLF). The improvement of football has been a life ambition of Philip, as he played for his country from 1968 until 1982, before taking the helm as manager of his country in 1985. He held that role until 2001, then beginning his current role as president in 2004. Philip understood that the country would never compete if their team continued to pick from a pool of amateur players, so the federation has gone about creating an environment to allow young players to turn professional and play in neighbouring countries.

The most recent squad was entirely composed of players playing professional football in leagues in France, Germany, Sweden, Ukraine, and England – except for one player. Top-flight clubs did not help Luxembourg football as a charitable venture, but have noticed the significant improvement in young talent from the landlocked European nation.

The improvement has occurred due to the evolution of the youth system in the country. The federation has ensured that the level of football education in Luxembourg is of top quality. Once the players have displayed enough potential until the age of 10, they are moved to the national centre – with the majority being kept there until the age of 18. By this point, the best players will have been scouted by professional teams in Belgium, France, and Germany due to the network between the FIF and clubs in these nations to continue the players’ professional development.

This system took influence from the Icelandic model, which brought about great success for that nation as they famously qualified for the European Championships in 2016 and the 2018 World Cup. Phillip and the federation were inspired by the success of this Nordic Island; they believe that if a nation with a population half the size of Luxembourg’s 640,000 can qualify for international tournaments, why can’t they develop a squad to do the same?

Players such as Vincent Thill, Leandro Barreiro, and Christopher Martins have used this pathway into professional football. The players will have been part of the national centre development system during the week, and then played matches for their club at the weekend until they made the move abroad. These three are only a selection of examples that have been part of this approach, with Thrill playing for Vorskla Poltava, Barreiro for Mainz 05, and Martins for Spartak Moscow.

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This development of players and sending them to professional leagues has been vital for the growth of talent in the country’s football system, particularly due to the fact that the top division of Luxembourg club football is still not professional. However, Luxembourg has employed the famous Jack Charlton tactic with Ireland: scout players eligible to play for the Red Lions from other nations to help with the development of their national team.

This method has brought Danel Sinani, Dirk Carlson, and Gerson Rodrigues into the national team for Luxembourg. These acquisitions have helped increase the level of competition within the squad, which will undoubtedly raise the standard of football across the nation. To entice players to compete for Luxembourg, the FIF has promised players the chance to play international football matches – something they are unlikely to do for their own national teams.

The development of youth players through the revamped system and the acquisition of quality eligible players for the country has unquestionably improved the ability of players and, in turn, the team.

Has the UEFA Nations League played a role?

In 2006, the country was ranked 195th in the FIFA world rankings – but following these changes to football within the country, it is now ranked 89th. The winning of competitive games has been important to the team’s growth and the country’s movement up the rankings, as the UEFA Nations League was set up to provide competitive games against teams of a similar level.

This has been beneficial for the development of many countries, particularly Luxembourg. The Red Lions originally started in League D (the fourth level of the competition), but are now competing to gain promotion to League B, having finished second twice now in League C.

The competition has allowed teams to develop players and gain confidence in competitive games. Qualification for international tournaments has long been fixed in such a way to help the bigger nations qualify from Europe – this meant that for lower-ranking teams being drawn into qualification groups, they could go years without a win or a draw, and in turn they could never improve upon their world rankings, and so the cycle of being drawn against many stronger sides was repeated infinitely.

The Nations League has brought about better quality among smaller sides, while also giving them confidence to compete in qualification campaigns. Prior to the establishment of the Nations League, the country had only won twelve competitive games in 90 years; in the last five years, they’ve won fifteen.

Luxembourg have shown incredible development through this competition. Players have improved visibly after each game, allowing them to take this experience and apply it to their qualification campaigns. Luxembourg has been on this development path for over 10 years now, and their methods are likely to bring incredible success for the nation.

The continuous development of young players through this system will allow the quality of the squad to improve while they continue to recruit first-rate players from other nations to help push the squad on. Luxembourg is currently not far off qualifying for the 2024 European Championship in Germany. If they maintain the consistency that they have shown so far, this is certainly possible – but even if it’s not to be this time, I envisage the country qualifying for a major international tournament soon if they continue down their current path.

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