Pass The Duchy: F91 Dudelange and The Rise of Football in Luxembourg.

History was made this week as F91 Dudelange became the first team from Luxembourg to compete in the group stage of the Europa League since the competition’s rebrand in 2009. Not only a momentous occasion for the small town on the French border, it also heralds the latest chapter in one of European football’s most intriguing ongoing stories. So long a nation considered minnows, the Grand Duchy is slowly but surely establishing itself in both international and club football. So how did Dudelange change the record books, and where has this sudden improvement in Luxembourgian football come from? 

Located on Jan Pallach Square in the middle of Luxembourg City, a fountain to commemorate national poets Dicks and Michel Lentz proudly displays the national motto ‘Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn’: We wish to remain what we are. The sentiment is not one of stasis, but independence. Though dwarfed by neighbours France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, the people of Luxembourg are proud to have their own autonomous nation, and have no wish to become aligned with greater powers. For the best part of a century, football in Luxembourg has remained what it is: the most popular sport in the country, but one they’ve rarely tasted success in, with their national team regularly cast as the whipping boys in tournament qualification, and their domestic sides fortunate to advance past the first qualifying rounds in continental competition. On the 30th August all that changed, as Luxembourg National League champions F91 Dudelange returned from last season’s Romania Liga 1 winners CFR Cluj with a 5-2 aggregate win that saw them become the first team from Luxembourg to progress into the group stage of a European competition. For F91 and the rest of the country, it’s been a long time coming.

Though formed in 1991, F91 are only the fifth youngest club currently competing in the National League. Their foundation came from the union of three local sides, CS Alliance, US Dudelange and CS Stade, all of whom had fallen on financial hardship, and required a merger in order to stabilise football in the town. Despite residing in one of the richest country in Europe, with a GDP per capita of around $110,000, investment in football has never been a priority, a fact that has necessitated a cluster of  football club mergers in the past thirty years. Starting out in the enchantingly named ‘Division of Honour’, F91 were promoted to the top flight in their first season, and quickly set about dominating domestic football. At the turn of the century, the club knocked Jeunesse Esch off their perch to become National League champions, and began almost two decades of supremacy at the top of the league, winning fourteen league titles and seven Luxembourg Cups. European success, however, would evade them, losing out in the first qualifying round of the Champions League in their first three attempts. In 2005, they became the first Luxembourgian team to reach the second round of qualifiers, beating Bosnian side NK Zrinjski Mostar over two legs, before Rapid Vienna handed out a thrashing at the Stade Jos Nosbaum to end F91’s dreams of qualification.

The introduction of the Europa League in 2009, and the subsequent reshuffle of the European competitions for the 2012/13 season marked a sea-change for the landlocked nation, as teams unsuccessful in the Champions League qualifiers were eligible to qualify for the Europa League, providing further opportunities for regular, competitive continental football. At first progress was slow, with F91 breaking more records by reaching the third qualifying round in the Champions League, but losing heavily to Hapoel Tel Aviv when dropping into the Europa play-off round. Year after year, though, success stories began to emerge, and the 2017/18 season offered the first signs of an emerging nation. Fola Esch reached the third qualifying round of the Europa League, losing out to last season’s surprise package Ostersunds, while Progrès Niederkorn earned themselves a lifetime’s supply of Tennents Lager at Celtic Park by knocking Rangers out in the first round. A cause of embarrassment for the blue half of Glasgow at the time, but less of a surprise in hindsight.

Progrès progressed well again this season, taking Russian side Ufa all the way in the third qualifier, but it was F91 that stole the headlines. A straightforward victory over Kosovan champions FC Drita in the first round was followed by an eye-catching win against Legia Warsaw, winners of the Ekstraklasa last season and going toe-to-toe with Real Madrid as recently as 2016. After a 2-0 home victory over Cluj, a breathtaking performance in Transylvania saw F91 hammer three nails into the Romanians’ coffin and write their name into the history books. Managed by Dino Toppmöller, son of former Bayer Leverkusen manager Klaus, F91 have assembled a squad of battle-hardened professionals, all peppered with the exuberance of some of Luxembourg’s most promising youth prospects. Serbian defender Milan Biševac, German midfielders Marc-André Kruska and Mario Pokar, and reserve goalkeeper Landry Bonnefoi all have experience in Europe’s top leagues, while Clément Couturier arrived at Dudelange knowing the true meaning of being an underdog, having lined up for third tier Les Herbiers against Paris Saint Germain in the French Cup final in May.

It’s Danel Sinani, though, who has emerged as the jewel in F91’s crown. The 21 year old  joined the club from RFC Union Luxembourg last year, and his performances as a second striker have since earned him a call-up to the national team. Three goals over the two legs against Cluj, including a blockbuster from 25 yards to open the scoring in Romania, cemented Sinani’s hero status, and its him more than most that embodies the emergence of Luxembourg as a footballing nation. In the brand new UEFA Nations League that kicked off at the beginning of September, d’Roud Léiwen began their League D campaign with two emphatic victories over Moldova and San Marino. Before the last international break Luxembourg hadn’t won a game by more than one goal since 1972; now they’re on a roll. Shoots of growth in the national team first appeared during the qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup, with eventual winners France being held to a goalless draw at the Stade de France, thanks largely to the performance of F91 ‘keeper Jonathan Joubert. In 2018 they’ve been beaten just once in six games, and the door to a potential play-off for Euro 2020 is now wide open.

The key to Luxembourg’s success has, of course, come from the ground up. In 2001 a national football school was set up in the town of Mondercange, centralising the training process for youngsters from the age of thirteen. Over time the quality of coaching at the school has improved, and scouts from the bigger leagues in Europe have whisked prospects away to provide something of a finishing school. In the squad for the Nations League fixtures, national team coach Luc Holtz named  a record sixteen players based overseas, the most promising of which are Mainz 05’s Leandro Barreiro and FC Ufa’s Olivier Thill. The grassroots movement doesn’t stop at teenagers, however, with the Luxembourg Football Federation (FLF) launching an initiative this summer to offer all children over the age of five access to courses run by qualified football coaches. This latest project is designed to run alongside existing initiatives by the FLF, providing outreach programmes to schools, the disabled community and refugees.

Investment in youth is also central to the philosophy of F91 Dudelange, and in 2014 the club opened the Jean-Marie Kontz Football Academy to provide coaching for over three-hundred aspiring footballers. Not just a centre for honing skills and technique, the JMK Academy aims to nurture students through all aspects of life, providing homework support and exam preparation after training, charting their physical development, and encouraging a healthy lifestyle. How successful the academy has been will become clear over the next few years, but if the club hope to maintain their newfound standing as a European competitor, a conveyor belt of homegrown talent would be a useful asset.

For now, focus is firmly on a Europa League group that provides six stern tests for the champions of Luxembourg. Speaking after the draw in Monaco, Dino Toppmöller was excited by the challenge ahead “When I was young, I was a fan of Italian football. I liked both Milanese clubs. AC Milan will of course be a highlight for the whole club. Betis is a good club that plays in the best league in the world”, while Clément Couturier labelled the draw “a beautiful group with great teams”. The players and management were under no illusions of the mountainous challenge ahead, however, and on Thursday evening they welcomed Milan to the national stadium Josy Barthel, in front of a crowd just shy of 8,000. Though Rino Gattuso opted to rest most of his first team, the Rossoneri were still able to name Pepe Reina, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Gonzalo Higuain in their starting line-up. It was the Argentinian marksman that scored the only goal of the game just before the hour, but Toppmöller will take heart from a gutsy performance against one of Europe’s most famous teams.

Whilst it may be some time before F91 and their compatriots are appearing in the latter stages of European competition, their presence in this season’s group stage offers hope for the rest of the league. Earning €4million, more than double their yearly budget, from their participation in the group stage will also boost their prospects of repeating the feat. Right now, F91 wish to remain what they are: a team capable of competing against Europe’s best.

 

 

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