To most fans around the world, the big names in football are
the likes of AC Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern
Munich, clubs with a rich domestic and international pedigree and
trophy collections to match.
These are the European giants, boasting multi-talented and multi-cultural line-ups, but the continental roster also includes a string of less well-known clubs who nevertheless dominate within their national boundaries, racking up championships and cups galore, and representing their nations on the wider footballing stage. These are the biggest fish in the smallest ponds, helping to maintain passion and enthusiasm for the game in every corner of the globe.
Ranger's FC, top dogs in Andorra
The Andorran top flight was founded in 1995. The Primera Diviso in the landlocked principality, sandwiched between Spain and France in the eastern Pyrenees, is fully operated by the national association and features eight teams, with all league and cup matches staged at the 1,800 capacity Estadi Comunal de Aixovall.
The ground is also home to the principality's best-known club, although FC Andorra have competed in the Spanish league since 1948 and do not feature on the domestic stage in this country perhaps better-known as a winter sports paradise.
Reigning Andorran champions FC Ranger's were founded in 1981 and first appeared in the local top flight in 2001-02. The club made rapid progress after earning promotion to the first division, and soon began a relentless pursuit of honours. A runners-up finish in 2005 was followed by back-to-back title triumphs for a team who currently lie third in the Primera Diviso and remain undefeated five games into the new season.
Ranger's debuted on the continental stage in 2005 with a first round appearance in what was then the UEFA Intertoto Cup. Austrian outfit SK Sturm Graz proved too strong in the end, although Ranger's creditable 1-1 draw in the home leg represents the best result in club history. They appeared in the UEFA Cup as national champions the following season, only to fall to FK Sarajevo. Most recently, Ranger's made history this summer as the first Andorran club to compete in the UEFA Champions League, although Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova ultimately went through to the second qualifying round.
F91 Dudelange rule the roost in Luxembourg
The 18,000-strong town of Dudelange is home to Luxembourg's serial champions, whose record is especially impressive given the club was only formed in 1991 from a merger between Alliance Dudelange, Stade Dudelange and US Dudelange. The amalgamation duly gave birth to the Grand Duchy's footballing powerhouse, who went on to spring a major surprise at European club level.
The greatest triumph in the history of the country's club football came in the 2005-06 UEFA Champions League when F91 became the first-ever Luxembourgish club to make the second qualifying round. After a 1-0 away defeat in the first leg to Bosnian cracks NK Zrinjski Mostar, Dudelange ran up a dramatic 4-0 success at home, albeit after extra time. F91 levelled the tie on aggregate with a stoppage-time strike, before surging to victory in the additional half-hour, although Austrian champions SK Rapid Vienna were to prove too strong in the next round. In this summer's qualifying competition, Dudelange fell to Slovakian outfit MSK Zilina in an exciting double-header which ended 2-1 and 5-4.
With the solitary exception of the year 2003, F91 Dudelange have claimed at least one trophy every season since 2000, including six league titles and three knockout cups. The side who play their home fixtures at the Jos Nusbaum stadium in the county of Esch-sur-Alzette are on course for honours again this term as they lead the standings with a maximum 33 points from eleven games, 13 clear of RFC Union Luxemburg (20) and FC Avenir Beggen (18). The team coached by Michel Leflochmoan have scored 31 goals and conceded a mere three.
Sheriff lay down the law in Moldova
Moldova's leading club came into being as Tiras Tiraspol in 1996. Now known as Sheriff Tiraspol, the club from the country's second city boast one of the most impressive records in any European league. The season after gaining promotion from the third division, they promptly won the second tier by a full 21 points to claim a place in the Divizia Nationala, the landlocked south-east European state's first division.
Sheriff finished fourth in their debut top flight season and claimed their first-ever trophy with a 2-1 victory in the Cup final, before missing out on the championship the following term by a single point. Events after that give a new meaning to the notion of domestic dominance.
Sheriff Tiraspol have won the Moldovan title every season since 2000-2001, with three knockout cup triumphs to add the icing on the cake, for a total of ten trophies in the last seven seasons.
For all their domestic success, the Moldovans have never progressed further than the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round, losing out to bigger teams in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. This summer's Champions League foray duly ended in the second round with a 4-0 aggregate defeat to Istanbul giants Besiktas.
At the beginning of this week, Sheriff won 1-0 away to Dacia Chisinau to maintain a seven-point lead over Cup holders Zimbru Chisinau. A record of 12 wins and three draws so far, with 26 goals scored and just one conceded, suggests the balance of power in the Divizia Nationala is unlikely to change just yet.