Liechtenstein ready to make progress
© AFP

"A few years ago a 3-0 defeat was considered a great result. Our objective now has to be more than just keeping the score respectable and being happy just to take part." These words from defender Franz Burgmeier in 2006 were a subtle hint as to how far Liechtenstein would progress over the coming years.

A look at the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking makes it easy to understand the tiny nation’s new-found confidence on the European stage. The so-called minnows rose an astonishing 33 places up to 120th - the country's best improvement since the system was introduced and just two places short of their highest-ever ranking.

A string of promising results have been the key factor behind this recent rise. After failing to win a competitive fixture since October 2007, Hans-Peter Zaugg's side finally ended that streak on 4 June 2011 with a 2-0 success over Lithuania in qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012.

Good performances rewarded
"That was an important step for us,” said their Swiss coach shortly after the surprise victory. “We’ve played well in our last few games without picking up any points, but the team stuck at it and that's why it's great that we've opened our account. I'm delighted to have got off the mark in qualifying. It's nice to see that the team are finally being rewarded for their good performances."

Indeed, a 1-0 friendly victory over San Marino and two 1-1 draws against Estonia and Iceland respectively had proven Liechtenstein's ability to compete with teams better-placed in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Beating Lithuania in a competitive fixture was the culmination of months of steady improvement.

Liechtenstein have been competing internationally since 1982. Their maiden success was a 2-0 victory over a Beijing XI in June of the same year, though it would be another 16 years before the principality recorded its first competitive victory, a 2-1 triumph against Azerbaijan in qualifying for EURO 2000 in October 1998.
 
Pushing the limits
One of the driving forces behind the team’s recent upturn has obviously been their coach Zaugg. Bidu, as he is known by his charges, took over from Martin Andermatt in December 2006 in the hope of challenging for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa. "I'm happy as long as my players push themselves to their limits," said the 58-year-old shortly after taking up the reins. "As long as they do that, we can achieve good results. My players have to believe that they can cause an upset and achieve something special."

Unfortunately, Zaugg's team remained winless en route to South Africa 2010, picking up just two points (draws against Finland and Azerbaijan) to finish bottom of a group dominated by Germany and Russia. It was a major disappointment for the principality following a decidedly more promising showing four years earlier.

Indeed, in qualifying for Germany 2006, Liechtenstein enjoyed their best-ever campaign with two wins (both against Luxembourg) and two draws (against Portugal and Slovakia) in 12 matches. The 4-0 away triumph in Luxembourg remains the national team's most emphatic victory to date.
 
Looking ahead to Brazil
Currently Liechtenstein are rooted to the foot of EURO 2012 qualifying Group I, far removed from world and European champions Spain and a potential place at next year's showpiece in Poland/Ukraine. Even so, the victory over Lithuania has proven that their exploits are anything but a lost cause.

Even if they are condemned to a spectators' role as Europe's finest fight it out for the Henri Delaunay trophy next summer, Liechtenstein can at least look forward to their next big challenge: qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Liechtenstein may be one of the smallest nations to be taking part in the preliminary competition with a population of just 36,000, but, as recent results have shown, teams will underestimate the likes of captain Mario Frick, Peter Jehle, Martin Stocklasa and Co at their peril.