Ahead of Saturday's UEFA EURO 2024 final draw, we take a look at a success story from one of European football's up and coming nations.
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Luxembourg’s men's national team has just enjoyed the most successful campaign in their history. Led by transformative coach Luc Holtz, the Red Lions finished third in Group J behind Portugal and Slovakia and only missed out on direct qualification for the final tournament due to a narrow 1-0 home defeat against Slovakia at the Stade de Luxembourg on 16 October. For many observers, this encounter saw the Luxembourgers put on their best performance in recent years, dominating their opponents for long periods but ultimately coming away empty-handed.
However, the disappointment could not take away from the fact that Luxembourg defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina twice and secured a win and draw against Iceland on the way to racking up an impressive 17 points in ten games.
And all is not lost - thanks to their results in the UEFA Nations League, Luxembourg still have a chance of making the short journey to Germany thanks to the EURO play-offs next March. To achieve this goal, they must first beat Georgia away, before a potential home tie against either Greece or Kazakhstan in the final.
Either way, history has been made. Luxembourg’s previous record haul in qualifying dates back to 1994-95, when two defeats of Malta, a draw against Belarus and a success against the future EURO 1996 runners-up the Czech Republic saw them accumulate ten points. The coach at the time was Paul Philipp, now the president of the Luxembourg Football Federation (FLF). Furthermore, the current team now has an arena to match its performances in the Stade de Luxembourg, an impressive national stadium which opened in 2021 with a capacity of over 9,000.
A clear vision and a winning mentality
What appears to be an overnight success story in fact has its roots in long-term planning and the key role of a few highly influential figures.
Luc Holtz was in charge of the national Under-21 team when senior team coach Guy Hellers stepped down. The 54-year-old Holtz made his senior international debut as a coach on 11 August 2010 in a 5-1 defeat away to Wales, followed by another loss a month later against Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was only able to call on two professional footballers: Lars Gerson, who still features in the squad, and Mario Mutsch, now the assistant coach. Over time, Holtz has instilled a different mindset, embraced a more attacking style of football and expanded the coaching and support staff.
Underpinning this emerging winning mentality is an ambitious talent identification and youth development programme. The FLF’s football school, under the direction of former international player Manou Cardoni, plays a central role in this strategy. Talented boys are called up from the age of nine to attend two training sessions a week in regional centres. The 400 best prospects aged 12 and over attend up to four training sessions a week at the national centre in Mondercange, alongside around 150 young female players. In addition to training, there is medical assistance and school support from Monday to Thursday.
Expanded and upgraded using funds from UEFA’s HatTrick programme, which redistributes revenue from the men's EURO back to the 55 member associations for investment in football development, the Mondercange facility also houses the FLF headquarters.
"This is the only way to progress and ensure that we don't lose contact with other countries," explains Paul Philipp. "The football school is the basis for future success."
The results are plain to see. A country of 600,000 inhabitants with over 40,000 registered players, Luxembourg is starting to punch well above its weight. More and more young Luxembourgers are being recruited by foreign clubs after graduating from the football school. One look at the national team's line-up in the last qualifier against Liechtenstein reveals a group of players plying their trade in Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Sweden and Türkiye.
Luc Holtz has skillfully molded a well-drilled and highly effective unit from this diverse squad. With his magic touch, and new generations of talented players waiting in the wings, the future looks bright for the Red Lions.