Red Lions hungry to succeed
© AFP

With less than 50 days to go until the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the football world is eagerly anticipating the tournament’s Opening Match between the hosts and Croatia at the Arena de Sao Paulo. One team that won’t be taking part in football’s showcase event in South America, however, is Luxembourg.

The Red Lions have never qualified for a World Cup or UEFA European Championship finals. Nevertheless, the team managed to write their own piece of history during the most recent qualifying campaign, with Luc Holtz, who has held the reins since August 2010, guiding the minnows to their best-ever points tally in Group F.

“The last qualifying round was incredibly important for our development,” said Holtz in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “Some of the matches were very entertaining, especially against ‘smaller’ nations such as Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland. We didn’t lose a single game to these teams, despite the fact that some of our key players and pillars of the squad were unavailable through injury. Overall, we can be very happy with what we achieved. It was the best-ever World Cup qualifying round by a Luxembourg team – that has to be an incentive for the future.”

End of a drought
This surge in form is reflected in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking: Luxembourg climbed to 112th place in April – their highest position since September 2012, when they were 106th.

“There are several reasons [behind our recent improvement],” Holtz explained. “First of all, I’d cite the change in our playing philosophy. We’ve managed to switch from a very defensive mindset to a more possession-oriented style in recent months. Many of our players have benefited as a result and have even attracted the interest of professional foreign clubs. The players have also come on leaps and bounds psychologically. They’ve started thinking and behaving more positively. We’re no longer going into games expecting to lose, but looking to win every time.”

The minnows’ new-found self-belief bore fruit during the qualifying campaign for the World Cup in Brazil. On 10 September 2013, Luxembourg’s 41-year wait for a home victory finally came to an end as they beat Northern Ireland 3-2 – their first win on home soil since a 2-0 success against Turkey in 1972.

Prior to that win over Northern Ireland, Luxembourg’s last World Cup qualifying victory had come away from home. In their campaign for South Africa 2010, they recorded a shock 2-1 win over Switzerland which, intriguingly, took place five years to the day before their next victory, on 10 September 2008.

When recalling Luxembourg’s most notable successes, 8 October 1961 is another date that springs to mind. During qualification for the 1962 World Cup in Chile, the Red Lions played host to a Portugal side that included talents such as Eusebio, Jose Aguas and Mario Coluna. The Portuguese were expected to challenge England for top spot in the group, but were stunned as Luxembourg ran out 4-2 winners, an Adolphe Schmitt hat-trick helping them record their first-ever qualifying victory following 17 successive defeats.

Anything is possible in football
The expectations of the Grand Duchy have undeniably changed since then. The long wait for a place at the World Cup or European Championship finals may still be ongoing, but that is precisely what Holtz’s team have set out to achieve: “That has to be our goal now that the number of teams at the UEFA EURO finals has increased from 16 to 24. A third-place finish can be enough to qualify, so that’s obviously given us a lift and increased our expectations. This new objective will make us work harder and more meticulously than ever before.” However, a place at the finals of a major tournament is not the be-all and end-all for Holtz.

“It’s our aim to pick up where we left off in the last few games,” he explained. “The most important thing for me is how my team performs, how we go into challenges, how we behave when in possession of the ball and so on. The result isn’t the most important thing. If the performance is right, then the result will also be positive. If the performance isn’t up to scratch, more often than not you finish the game empty-handed. In short, if the performance is right, the result is right.”

Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus and FYR Macedonia are Luxembourg’s opponents in the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying group. Before then, Holtz’s side are due to play two friendlies against World Cup participants Belgium (26 May) and Italy (4 June). The fact that Luxembourg are taking on some of the world’s best sides proves just how far the goalposts have shifted.

“Everything’s possible in football,” said Holtz. “That’s exactly what makes the sport so enjoyable and emotional. Even if our hopes of beating the big nations seem slim, there’s still a chance that we could cause an upset. It’s nothing to do with the size of our country – that’s not going to make us hide or capitulate. Everyone has to understand that. The game isn’t a science, there are so many unforeseen aspects that are impossible to plan in advance. Because I have great confidence in my boys, I’m convinced we’ll do ourselves justice in our upcoming matches.”

The Red Lions’ palpable hunger for success is growing by the day. It’s surely only a matter of time before they add a further successful chapter to their footballing history.