As soon as Liechtenstein’s Peter Jehle begins speaking, it becomes apparent just how much the goalkeeper is looking forward to the biggest game of his year. On Monday 5 September, this small Central European principality will take on the footballing giants of Spain in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
"Playing against teams like that is always a treat," the 34-year-old said enthusiastically in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com when asked to assess the task awaiting his team. "We’re relishing the prospect of playing against absolute world-class stars."
Although Jehle has already experienced this sensation on a number of occasions, he can still barely wait until kick-off. Liechtenstein and Spain have met on six previous occasions, and the Vaduz keeper has taken up his place between the posts for the outsiders every time.
"I might have already gone through this a few times, but there’s certainly no way I can call it an everyday occurrence; it’s a privilege to experience something like this," the two-time Swiss champion said, before quickly tempering his excitement. "Having said that, I must confess that the 90 minutes aren’t always enjoyable."
This apprehension is understandable when you look closer at the two teams’ head-to-head record. Liechtenstein have lost every one of their previous six encounters, while even the cheeriest of goalkeepers would struggle to raise a smile at a goal difference of zero scored and 23 conceded.
Facing his idol
The Liechtenstein captain, capped 116 times for his country, has reason to be optimistic despite this daunting record. "I’m glad David Villa won’t be there this time," he grins. After all, the New York City striker has beaten him six times in their four previous meetings.
Villa is not the only Spaniard Jehle will miss next week. Just like his counterpart, 2010 world champion Iker Casillas has been in goal for all six of the teams’ past encounters. "We always exchanged shirts and spoke to each other,” the Liechtenstein custodian explained. “He’s a major role model for me; he’s not only one of the best goalkeepers I’ve ever played against but a great person too. He always has time for everyone. It’s something I’ve experienced several times myself and for which I’m extremely grateful."
You can feel that in the run-up to our matches, when our little capital city really comes to life.
Facing the world’s biggest footballing nations is always a special occasion for Jehle, despite the fact that few of these matches are played in major arenas. "These teams often play their games against Liechtenstein in smaller regions where fans don’t often get the chance to watch them live – and it shows,” he explained. “Last time we played in Spain, the entire city was on its feet and the stadium was packed full. It was a wonderful evening," the 6'1 (1.87m) goalkeeper recalled.
Holiday in Liechtenstein
While away trips are undoubtedly something special, the biggest highlight is when these teams and their stars make the trip to Liechtenstein. For the entire country and its 36,000 inhabitants, these matchdays feel more like public holidays. "There’s no doubt that we’re a small country where moments like these are few and far between,” Jehle said. “You can feel that in the run-up to our matches, when our little capital city really comes to life."
This illustrates one of the major advantages of representing a small nation. Although the 34-year-old spends most of his time before a game in the team hotel, he still gets to soak up almost all of the remarkable atmosphere. "Everything is close together around here,” he explained. “Our team hotel is very near to the city centre, where most of the action happens. Sometimes we hear fans chanting on the eve of the match, as we did when the Scots and the English were here."
It is clear that this principality makes the most of its World Cup qualifying campaigns even though results tend not to go their way. The Central Europeans failed to win a single match in their bids to reach South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, collecting just two points in each campaign.
A dream international debut
Jehle’s hopes that this situation might change in future have been given a boost by Iceland and Wales’ recent performances at UEFA EURO 2016, where both teams stunned the continent despite also having small populations. "It showed what’s possible for small countries if they do everything right and have established the right structures for developing footballers, and Iceland are a great example of that,” the veteran explained. “We have the resources here in Liechtenstein too; we just need to use them effectively."
Jehle is keen to help pave the way for the next generation from within the current setup. As well as being able to draw on almost 18 years of international experience, he was also present for one of his country’s greatest footballing moments. At the age of only 16, he made his international debut in UEFA Euro 2000 qualifying on 14 October 1998 as Liechtenstein beat Azerbaijan 2-1 to record their first ever competitive win.
"That all still seems like something out of a movie to me; helping my country get its first qualifying win in my first international,” he recalled. “We accomplished so much that day. Unfortunately we’ve suffered one or two defeats since then,” he added with a laugh.
Although it will be difficult for Liechtenstein to notch another famous win in their encounter with Spain next week, Jehle did not mince his words when asked what result he would like to see. "For a goalkeeper, the best result is always a clean sheet, and that’s what I always aim for on the pitch, no matter who our opponents might be,” he said confidently, the excitement of taking on this latest challenge resonating in every word.