Not too long ago, Sweden would have headed to Luxembourg fully expecting to come away with all three points and possibly beefing up their goal difference in the process. But those days are history now, and the Scandinavian side will be rightly wary when they make the trip on Friday. With 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying points at stake, nobody can afford to take the Grand Duchy lightly.
"It's like day and night," says Luxembourg captain Aurelien Joachim, giving *FIFA.com *the inside track on his team's impressive progress. For so long considered whipping boys, Joachim and Co have turned plenty of heads with their recent results, which include a victory in Switzerland and a draw with Italy. "Everyone in Europe has to be careful of the smaller nations now because everyone is improving, ourselves included." *
The evidence for improvement goes beyond mere results too, with performances having evolved dramatically since the era when Luxembourg aimed for little more than damage control – a frustrating approach for an attacking player like Joachim. "Before, we used to play with 11 men behind the ball, and if I got past the halfway line three times in a game I was doing well," recalls the forward, who recently signed for second-division Belgian outfit Lierse. "There were games when I didn't get a single shot at goal. Now we're trying to improve, play football and get forward. I'm getting more touches on the ball and more shots."
Never giving up
His shots are finding their target too, with Joachim registering ten goals for his country since 2011 – after failing to hit the net during his first six years in the national side. Not surprisingly, his standing in the club game has risen as a result. An amateur until 2012, he started out terrorising defences in the lower leagues in Belgium and Germany, then shone for the two biggest clubs in Luxembourg, Differdange and Dudelange, as he waited for his chance to come.
Dutch club Willem II were the first to give him his break, though he found the adjustment taxing at first. "The switch from one world to the other was very complicated," he says, having later made Waalwijk, CSKA Sofia and third-tier English side Burton Albion his next ports of call. "You need a long period of adaptation. I was playing in the championship in Luxembourg and then all of a sudden I found myself in the Eredivisie. The first few months were tough, especially physically, in terms of the intensity of training and the rhythm of the matches."
Although he kept up with the pace initially, his playing time and goal figures dropped off during his stays in Bulgaria and England. Injury problems and personal disagreements started to mount, and Joachim also found himself held back by an issue he could do nothing to help – the country on his passport. "Some people have a mentality that punishes you. They tell themselves that a forward from Luxembourg is obviously an average player who shouldn't be at a big club, and so he should start on the bench."
Joachim, though, says he does not miss his years as an amateur, when he worked as a lifeguard to pay the bills. "That's partly why, even when the situation was tough, I never gave up and always carried on working. I knew things would change one day or another."
Progress and ambition
That day came when he decided to return to Belgium, where Joachim – who also holds Belgian nationality – got back on track at RWS Bruxelles, before joining Lierse. "In the last 17 matches I've scored 16 goals," he says proudly, forgetting to include his double against Bulgaria in a game Luxembourg lost 4-3 in the final moments – possibly because the experience still haunts him.
"We had that match under control and let it slip in the last second," he laments. "For us, there are no easy games, so we have to give 100 per cent to get a result. That's what top-level football is all about. Mistakes always get punished. The younger players still need to learn that a game is only over when the referee blows his whistle. We thought we'd got a fantastic result because we'd scored three times and there were only one or two minutes left to play. We need to learn from that lesson."
Drawn in a group containing Bulgaria, France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belarus, Luxembourg can ill afford any more lapses if they hope to compete. They are also bent on drawing the benefits of facing such high-profile opponents. "Those games against the big teams are wonderful to play and that's how you learn – by seeing how much work you still need to do to progress."
Much work has already been done, of course, and Joachim is delighted to be part of a Luxembourg team no longer aiming to finish second bottom. "Over the last few years you can see that there's been a progression. But what matters now is turning that into points."