Playoffs for Euro 2024: Luxembourg’s ‘extraordinary’ Ascent to the Edge of History

The weather at Wembley on 15 December 1982 was characterized by rain and strong winds. The footballers from Luxembourg faced yet another devastating defeat amidst stormy conditions.

In a dominant display, England secured a resounding victory in the European Championship qualifying match, with striker Luther Blissett scoring an impressive hat-trick in a 9-0 triumph.

The daily routine of a Luxembourg international player remained unchanged for the years before and after. They consistently faced a series of crushing losses, often in part-time positions.

The Grand Duchy has a remarkable track record of participating in numerous World Cup and European campaigns without managing to qualify. Prior to 2008, only eight points were earned from 104 World Cup matches. However, there have been some significant developments – they are now only two games away from their inaugural major tournament.

Luxembourg will be facing Georgia in the opening Euro 2024 play-off on Thursday, with a potential final against either Kazakhstan or Greece determining their path to the finals in Germany.

“We didn’t have high hopes for a direct qualification, but it’s always nice to dream,” commented Paul Philipp, president of the Luxembourg Football Federation.

“It’s important to remember that we are a small country and it’s unlikely that we will ever become European champions.” The level at which we are performing is truly remarkable.

“We may not be the top contenders in these matches. However, in football, anything can happen.”

Philipp accumulated 54 caps for Luxembourg before embarking on a 15-year coaching tenure with the national senior team. He openly acknowledges that his experience as both a player and coach presented its fair share of challenges.

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“During that period, we had a limited number of professional players,” he disclosed. “That was quite a setback. Then in 2001, we established our national football academy, which marked the start of our remarkable journey.”

The squad that Philipp and his head coach, Luc Holtz, have assembled is now scattered throughout Europe, with players representing prestigious clubs in Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. It is a stark contrast to Philipp’s past involvement in playing and coaching.

“Our success has been attributed to the establishment of a football academy, where young players aged 12-19 undergo rigorous training sessions almost every day of the week, along with participating in one international friendly match per week,” Philipp explained.

“During the weekends, they go back to their clubs and participate in league matches.

“After more than two decades, our academy has successfully produced a talented group of around 20 professionals who are now playing internationally.”

Holtz was named national coach in 2010 after representing Luxembourg in 55 international matches during his playing career. He holds the record for being the manager with the longest tenure in international football.

“We had to make significant changes when I assumed control, particularly in terms of the players’ mindset,” stated Holtz.

“We have shed our anxiety and now approach challenges with bravery.” In the past, the emphasis was on defense, but now our focus has shifted to ball possession and high pressing.

Luxembourg’s Euro 2024 qualifying campaign was highlighted by their impressive victories against Bosnia-Herzogovina. In addition to a victory and a tie against Iceland, they also had a tie with Slovakia, ultimately placing third in Group J.

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Iceland has demonstrated the path to success for Europe’s smaller nations by qualifying for both a European Championship and World Cup in recent years. Their population is slightly more than half of Luxembourg’s, and Holtz finds inspiration in their example.

“It’s challenging to make comparisons between different countries, but Iceland has demonstrated the incredible potential of a small nation, whether in football or handball,” he remarked.

“It serves as a great example to emulate, as it demonstrates that the mindset matters more than the country’s size.”

During Holtz’s tenure, Luxembourg has shown signs of improvement with draws against France and Italy, as well as a win in Switzerland. Additionally, the team has benefited from a strong Portuguese community, which has provided valuable recruits. Defender Miguel Goncalves, midfielder Leandro Barriero, and the record-breaking scorer, Gerson Rodgrigues, come from that background.

“Luxembourg is a country known for its diverse population, with a significant number of foreigners residing here. As a result, our community is enriched by individuals from various backgrounds, bringing a unique perspective to the table.” Holtz stated.

He will lead his team to Tblisi, having already achieved a historic feat by bringing Luxembourg to the verge of a major finals. It’s hard to believe how far he has come since taking charge in 2010.

“I never really believed that I could qualify for a championships,” Holtz confessed. “Our focus was on growth and advancement, with everything else as secondary priorities.”

“The pressure seems to be weighing heavily on Georgia, being the home team and the favorites. Personally, I’m not even considering the possibility of qualifying.”

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“It’s important to proceed methodically and avoid rushing.”

Regardless of the result, Luxembourg fans can anticipate further advancements under Holtz’s leadership, as he secured a fresh two-year deal in December of the previous year.

“The team we have is incredibly youthful and has the potential to continue playing together for many more years,” he stated. “I think there is still room for improvement.”

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