Who would have thought it? Four games into the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and tiny Luxembourg have proved themselves the surprise package of European Zone Group 2 with four points from four games.
Instrumental in this upturn in fortunes for the Grand Duchy has been striker Alphonse 'Fons' Leweck. Just last September, the 27-year-old left goalkeeper Diego Benaglio stranded when he scored an 87th -minute winner away to Switzerland in a hugely celebrated 2-1 win. And while that was his only goal of the campaign so far, his overall contribution has been hugely impressive.
"We have four points now and everyone is saying how good we are," enthused Leweck in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "Against Switzerland we stepped up at key moments and put away our chances. Against Moldova (during the 0-0 draw) we were actually the better team. We're happy with our tally and have done the best we can so far."
A hard worker on and off the pitch
The achievements of Leweck and Co are doubly impressive when you consider that most of the team are not professional players and have to balance work with their football commitments. "We only have amateur players in Luxembourg so they almost all have day jobs," explained the Etzella Ettelbruck player. "I work for the family hotel in Lipperscheid with my two brothers and my parents who built the hotel over 30 years ago. I also opened a boutique three years ago where I sell clothes from Italy and the USA, and I have an online shop. I work until 6pm every day, and then I go training."
Leweck's club are only eighth in the Fortis League after finishing last season in fourth place. The football league in this country of 480,000 people is also semi-professional, as Leweck explains: "There are 14 teams in our first division, and the facilities at the different clubs are perfectly adequate. At my club we train four times a week and play on Sundays. You have to really like football to take the time to go training for two hours after work."
The national team coached by Guy Hellers does not get any favours on the international stage, with Luxembourg never having qualified for the finals of a major tournament. Naturally, this makes the small successes like the memorable win against Switzerland all the more precious. "We've worked hard on our game," insists Leweck, who is already thinking about their upcoming home-and-away ties against Latvia on 28 March and 1 April respectively.
"Of course we're the underdogs in these games. We try not to read too much into the group positions. However, it's true that we've got all we could have hoped for so far. You have to be careful with qualifiers because you never know what could happen. If we draw our next two games that would be perfect."
The presence of three established footballing nations in Group 2 - Greece, Switzerland and Israel - does not faze Leweck, though. Following relatively narrow defeats against the 2004 European champions (3-0) and Israel (3-1) and their victory over Ottmar Hitzfeld's men, Luxembourg have shown they respect the bigger teams but are not afraid of them.
"It's hard for us playing against big sides like Greece, Switzerland or Israel," Lewek told FIFA.com. "We go into those games aiming for a draw. Everything has to click and every player has to give 100 percent, then we need a bit of luck on top of that. We have to do what we showed we were capable of in our previous games. Then if we lose, we can still leave the pitch knowing we haven't let ourselves down."
The qualification campaign has gone very well for Leweck and Co so far, and who knows what other surprises may be in store for the Luxembourg international with 36 caps to his name. "I've achieved all my targets so far, but I'm still hungry and want to score more international goals," is how Leweck sums up his current ambitions.
His club career may also move up a level soon as he intimated at the close of the interview: "Twenty-seven is definitely a good age to play football at a high level. When I was younger I did get some offers from clubs outside Luxembourg. However, I never really like leaving my family, even though my parents would have fully supported me either way. But if I were to get an approach now, I could see maybe see myself going for it. Time will tell..."