A Little Grand Duchy Tour

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A skip through South West Luxembourg, the hotbed of Grand Duchy football, whilst enjoying a trio of European ties.

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The day before the First Round of the European Draws were made in Switzerland for the 2019/20 season I decided that given the Edinburgh sides had let me down, I’d head overseas to catch a game. Perusal of the teams going into the hat brought Luxembourg to mind, as oddly the relatively small town of Esch-Sur- Alzette was providing two sides to the Europa League, so I reasoned one must surely be drawn home in the first leg. Having only been in the Grand Duchy for three hours way back in 1982 I found myself researching ways to fly there ahead of the draw; Brussels, Charleroi, Amsterdam and Paris were all considered, but lo and behold there are direct flights to Luxembourg from Edinburgh, who knew! Ahead of the Esch duo of Jeunesse and Fola going in the bowl, the Champions League draw coughed up F91 Dudelange v FC Valletta, adding the notion they might play on the Wednesday, allowing two games from my potential two night stay. An hour or so later a joyful punch of the air upon seeing Jeunesse paired with Tobol Kostanay from Kazakhstan was quickly tempered soon after when Fola were also drawn at home to a Georgian side Chikhura Sachkhere. I was convinced one of these games would be switched, and I hoped it wouldn’t be the Kazakh encounter. I held off booking for a few days waiting for UEFA to settle the matter. When it finally became apparent these three ties would be scheduled on three consecutive Luxembourg nights, I got greedy and booked a Monday to Friday trip to encompass the lot! 

The Luxembourgeoise football star has been rising in recent years, both in the International and European club arenas. It is hard to believe that Luxembourg reached the Quarter Finals of the European Championships in 1964, having defeated The Netherlands 3-2, before going out 6-5 on aggregate to Denmark after three games! Alas they gradually sank into the also ran category, ending many a qualifying group without a point, and rarely a goal. In the last few years they have rediscovered the joy of not losing as much, culminating in a proud away point with World Champions elect France, 0-0 in September 2017!

F91 Dudelange became the first club side to make the Europa League group stages just last term, beating Legia Warsaw and CFR Cluj en route. They had a tough group with AC Milan, Olympiakos and Real Betis, who they held 0-0 to pick up their solitary group point, but it isn’t just F91 making strides, other clubs from the Grand Duchy are starting to grow in confidence. How far have they all progressed? Just ask Glasgow Rangers beaten by Progres Niederkorn 2-0, who advanced into the second round of a European competition for the first time in 2017/18 with that first ever competitive continental win at the 14th attempt! They obviously enjoyed the taste of success, having since beaten Gabala of Azerbaijan and the once illustrustrious Honved, both 2-0 last season, before narrowly losing out to Russians Ufa 4-3 on aggregate, who ironically went on to play Rangers in the next round! Progres had already progressed by the time I got involved this season, seeing of Cardiff Metropolitan on the away goals rule and were headed to Cork in the first round, meaning they were the only Luxembourg side away in the first leg. So with all this recent upsurge in fortunes for the Luxembourg sides, seeing three of them in action, as well as ask questions of the locals, it was a chance to get behind the stats and add credence to the Luxembourg revival. 

With a population of just over 600,000 Luxembourg is bigger than some of the smaller footballing nations of Europe, Faroe Islands, San Marino and Andorra to name but three, but while its land area is significantly less, it has a population of nearly double that of Iceland and we all know what giddy heights its national team has recently attained, although the Icelandic clubs have made very little impact in European competition. Ville de Luxembourg as the capital is known locally, whose old town and fortifications brought the city UNESCO World Heritage status in the 1990’s, is a leafy place surrounding and inhabiting a deep gorge. It feels like the city is still evolving, with an extraordinary amount of construction and major road upheaval as new tram lines are being put down. They say that a city forging ahead with new projects is a sign of affluence, and with one of the highest GDP in the world, in Luxembourg their prosperity is not in question! This will be further highlighted next March when everyone can travel by rail or bus, anywhere in the country for free! However, it is only 4 Euros for a day pass to travel all over the country now! It is a lovely wee capital, but with a population of only a fifth of the country’s total at 120,000. Small population hubs are spread throughout the country with Esch-sur-Alzette, where I am also headed is the second biggest with merely 40,000, and two Euro qualified football teams, not a bad return, are we taking notes Edinburgh!  

In relative terms, F91 Dudelange are the new kid on the block, and as the number in the title would suggest, they’ve only been going since 1991. The club is a merger of three Dudelange clubs, Alliance, US and Stade (remarkable they had three clubs with a population of less than 20,000!) , with all three having been successful in winning trophies in their own right, but none were nearly as dominant as the merged club, who have claimed 15 league titles since 1999/00, as well as 8 cups in that period too! With a capacity of just 2,558, the Jos Nosbaum stadium in Dudelange is too small for European games, so the big game with FC Valletta was moved 18 kilometres to the National Stadium, the Josy Berthel in the capital. This was the first time either side had faced a club from their opponents country, and while Valletta have 25 league titles, they’ve been at it a lot longer winning the league for the first time in 1914/15. Indeed in the same period since F91’s first title, the Luxembourg side win 15-8 on that score! The Maltese team will be remembered more fondly by Rangers fans, despatched 18-0 and 10-0 on aggregate in the days before the gulf in class narrowed immeasurably! 

The Josy Barthel stadium is about two miles from Gare de Luxembourg (the main train station), and a jolly pleasant stroll it is too, and yet this ground might not be used for much longer. Flying in (you rarely escape aeroplanes in the city as it is right on the flight path for the nearby airport!) I spotted a fairly advanced construction of a new stadium. Further investigation revealed that this is the new National Stadium, well out of town, but I am sure it will have excellent transport connections, as this is what Luxembourg does, with its very well organised transport infrastructure. The new venue is scheduled to be ready by the end of the year.

I did that field reconnaissance walk to the Josy Barthel hours before the game, all in the name of hopefully capturing daylights snaps for my article, but it never fails to amaze me just how many grounds are open and available for plundering with gates wide open! It is an all seated arena with a limited number under cover in the main stand. It is a tidy place, if too many fences, needless ones I am sure between spectator areas and field, which partly spoiling the view, but then again, an unusually short 6 lane running track pushes the action further away anyway. Given I never saw such fencing in the seven other venues during my trip, it begs the question, why is it here?! The National stadium wasn’t my first ground of the morning as being a Racing Club de Avellenada fan, wherever there is a Racing team my interest rises! As it transpired, Racing Union’s Stade Hammerel was not far from where I was staying. This is another of those mass merger clubs, swallowing up Spora Luxembourg as they went, but judging by last season’s average crowds, Racing had the lowest in the top flight, despite finishing fifth! I did get a plausible reason for this, and it isn’t a case of fans staying away from the new club having seen their own club losing its individual identity. Luxembourg City has a huge number of transient workers, and Racing’s main issue is being too central in the city! On the weekend a significant number of people head not just out of town, but out of the country, leaving the centre of Luxembourg City largely to the tourists!

So on a lovely early July evening, F91 Diddeleng (the Luxembourgish language name) trotted out with FC Valletta. Given that both sides were just recently back training, for a first competitive match this was an entertaining joust. The Maltese hadn’t come to just sit back, but with good reason as their defence was seriously ropey, and F91 soon realised they could get at them with a counter attacking style. Territorially Valletta might have been on top, but they were hit right down the centre of the field at lightning speed and Diddeleng led. In the solitary minute added on before the break, some neat home passing in the build up to a cross brought a fine second goal. It was all looking rather rosey for the Luxembourg side, but the old clique “two nil is a dangerous score” would come back to haunt them. Did coaching attitudes manifest the cautious approach at the start of the second half? F91 seemed to be playing to the remit of “don’t concede”, which merely gave Valletta the courage to push on. A fairly innocuous foul about 20 metres from the F91 brought a free kick, which was despatched with such class into the top right hand corner of the goal by a Brazilian named Packer, that even the home fans applauded. Buoyed by this exquisite goal Valletta smelled blood, as Diddeleng continued to lack any cohesion, and less than ten minutes later it was 2-2, waking the thirty or so Maltese fans, who had been largely quiet, from their slumber! The game became more and more stretched as F91 finally re-discovered the art of attack once more, desperate to re-establish a lead. There were a few near things, and a heep of Maltese time wasting, but on the final whistle, they all shook hands on a draw with a lovely sunset acting as a splendid backdrop. There is nothing between the teams, and I wouldn’t be writing off F91’s chances of progressing. If you are looking for a pre or post match pub, you won’t find anything close, but beer is served in the stadium.

The following day I found myself travelling south of the capital, and changing train at Bettembourg for a relatively short trip down to Dudelange, a town of only 20,000 but it has four railway stations! The Jos Nosbaum stadium was home to US Dudelange, and now the buffed up home of F91. The ground is up a serious hill and it is easier to access if you get off the train at Centre or Usines station. Two minutes from Usines is Stade Amadeo Barazzi once was home to Alliance, a spartan ground with an artificial surface. If the stadium sounds very Italian you’d be right as many Italians came here to work in the mines and an area of Dudelange is still known as the Italian quarter. The Alyose Meyer Stadium is equally spartan, once home to US Stade, but this is now the training facilities for F91. If you want to have a look, it is five minutes up another steep incline on the other side of the town from Ville station.        

Long before Dudelange ganged up on the rest, Jeunesse Esch were the team to beat in the Grand Duchy with 28 league titles to its name. The club was founded in 1907 as Jeunesse La Frontiera D’esch, winning its first title in 1920/21, but the fifties through to the eighties was the clubs real heyday amassing 19 more in that period. Since F91’s first league success, they’ve only managed two more in 2003/04 and 2009/10, with a horror show play off win to stay in the top flight sandwiched in between in 2006/07! Despite being neutral in both wars, Germany occupied the country, and Jeunesse temporarily had to play in the Gauliga Mosselland as SV Schwarz-Weiss 07 Esch, where they were runners up in 1943/44! While Jeunesse have played 71 games in Europe, they’ve only won nine games, but they were the only Luxembourg club to reach round 2 of the European Cup on two occasions before the Champions League came along and diluted the mere Champions trophy all in the name of money! Jeunesse missed out on European action altogether last term, so they were relishing the opportunity to welcome Tobol Kostanay to their compact and tidy 4,000 capacity (albeit for UEFA games only seats can be used) Stade de la Frontiere, a tipping of the hat to the clubs origins.

By sheer coincidence this was the middle match of the trio, and for me it was the centrepiece of the trip. As a regular follower of the Kazakh game, Kairat in particular, it was a delightful bonus to add a third team from the vast Eastern land to my viewing CV. Wonderfully, all Kazakh Premier League games are available on YouTube this season, and what better way to fill the gap between the seasons than get familiar with all the clubs and grounds I had never previously seen. Tobol (more commonly written as Tobyl from my viewing this season) is named after the river that flows through Kostanay, having settled on this name since 1995, previously drifting through names such as, Avtomobilist, Energetik, Kusyanayets (all in the Soviet era), as well as Kimik from 1992 for a brief period. The city is in the far north of the country, close to the Russian border and the club have the luxury of not one, but two stadiums, an indoor arena (used often in the early months of the season due to the weather outside) and obviously an outdoor venue, Central Stadium with a 9,000 capacity, but the return game with Jeunesse would be played in a near empty Astana Arena (or Nur Sultan if you want to be pedantic about the Kazakh capitals new name!) because the city of Kostanay does not have an International standard airport as yet, although I am assured it is imminently going to be ready! Tobol have been league winners just once, as recently as 2010, but this was just before FC Astana started benefiting from the sovereign purse as a flagship for success and Kairat’s billionaire owner continues to try to match them. However in 2019, the monied men are not getting things their own way, and as Tobol flew into Luxembourg they were jointly leading the table with Astana but with two games in hand too. Astana get assistance with an easing of their schedule with so much travel between Euro ties by playing additional league games ahead of the Champions League qualifiers, but it is the same for all four Kazakh entrants, so this is a tad naughty in my opinion!

The Stade de la Frontiere in Esch is about a mile from Esch/Alzette railway station tucked away amongst a housing development that may have been miners houses at one time, with the Rue des Mines one of the surrounding streets that affords access to the main entrance. It is a well maintained ground, and this game would bring the biggest attendance of the three games, at just under 1,400. Jeunesse also have a good core of “proper” fans who created a nice atmosphere during this ultimately tame encounter. I am not unduly moaning, after all one of these Esch ties could have been switched, but making Europa League games kick off early so they are finished by Champions League game time, especially in Round One, really?! This was the hottest day of my days in Luxembourg and the heat took its toll with neither team ever really getting up a head of steam. In the second half Jeunesse visibly wilted and Tobol dominated the ball, as well as creating a few near things, bringing one fine save from the home keeper, but it ended 0-0. The half dozen Kazakhs fans, none from Kostanay, were happy, and doubtlessly the team weren’t disappointed either, but this is the thing with Kazakh football, they need to become more ruthless and stop being happy with draws on the road, especially when they are playing well within themselves. I get that they were straight back to the airport after the game for a long, long flight, ahead of another considerable flight to southern Kazakhstan for a huge league game with Ordabasy Shymkent on Sunday, so maybe I am being harsh on them.  

There are a few hostelries within easy reach of the Jeunesse stadium, Cafe Op der Grenz (Luxembourg language for “of the frontier”) doubles up as a supporters clubhouse, with the walls festooned with photos of Jeunesse teams of yesteryear, and on match day of a nice evening, you can even get yourself a sausage sizzle fried out on the pavement at the front door! The San Siro Bar isn’t very far away either, even if it is on a busy traffic corner for outside supping! The entertainment doesn’t end with the local pubs, as fast food outlets for Tacos or Kebabs and an Italian restaurant are all on hand right next door to each other, making it a proper match day experience, unlike up the hill at Fola, more later! Inside the stadium you will be able to grab a beer, and indeed a plastic wine glass of Champagne too if you fancy, albeit you need to go to the club shop to buy a Euro club card for crossing off with your spending at the beverage or food counters!

With Progres Neiderkorn the only Euro represent that I wouldn’t see, ahead of the last game, I had time to pop down the tracks to see their stadium, as well as visit where they’d played Cardiff, and would be hosting Cork, at nearby Differdange. But first up was the most recent merger in 2015 in Petange, where local CS merged with suburban club Titus Lamadelaine, and are now enjoying the fruits of their pulled efforts finishing a giddy 8th in the top flight last season. Stade Municipal is nearer Lamadelaine station, the one after Petange if you are on a train that terminates at the border village of Rodange, the end of the line from Luxembourg City. The two villages of Petange and Lamadelaine are essentially one commune with a collective population of 7,500, more than double that of Niederkorn! Union Titus’s stadium is an out of town affair, and walking to it requires negotiating a busy roundabout. The 2,400 venue has a fabulous stand and I have the feeling this club might just be heading to the upper end of the Luxembourg domestic game, they seem to have all the proper facilities in place as well as a significant hospitality suite opposite the main stand. 

Neiderkorn is two stops back towards Esch and less than ten minutes from Lamadelaine on the train. The Jos Naupert stadium is also out of town, tucked in behind an Industrial Estate. It is around 1 ½ miles from the railway station, but unless you are headed here for domestic football, the stadium doesn’t have a UEFA license. The club has three league titles to its name, but the last time was 1980/81, and yet despite not winning anything in recent times, this small village teams confidence took off the night they knocked out Glasgow Rangers two years ago, and since then they’ve enjoyed some more European success. At the time of writing Progres were on the cusp of a re-match with the Scottish club having stunned Cork 2-0 away! Cardiff Metropolitan and Cork were both hosted five minutes along the road at the modern home of FC Differdange 03, a 2003 merger of the famous Red Boys and AS Differdange. Red Boys were champions six times, plus accumulating fifteen Cup wins, and while the merged club has yet to land a league title, they have added another four Cup victories to that tally, as well as being regularly involved in Europe themselves, albeit missing out this time around. The Stade Municipal is actually much closer to Oberkorn railway station, a few minutes further along the tracks from Differdange. The Avenue Parc des Sports is signed when you get off there, and is less than a ten minute walk.      

The third game was also in Esch-sur-Alzette, courtesy of good fortune that saw this modest old mining town hosting Europa League encounters on consecutive nights. CS Fola Esch are actually the older of the two teams having been founded in 1906, a year before Jeunesse. If their rivals were the team to beat through the 30’ to the 80’s, Fola’s moments in the sun were in the post WW1 period until 1930, when they passed the baton across town having won five of the clubs seven titles in that period. It took eighty two years before the Championship was Fola’s again in 2012/13, followed up with another two years later. They came up short as runners up last term, but they finished higher than Jeunesse again, retaining local bragging rights. The kindly Scottish connection gave Fola a first ever European win, 1-0 versus Aberdeen in 2016/17, but they lost 3-1 at Pittodrie. Like Progres Neiderkorn, that win kick started Fola, and they didn’t just progress through one round the following season, but two! Milsami Orhei from Moldova were beaten 3-2 on aggregate, and then Inter Baku 4-2, before coming unstuck for the third time against Swedish opposition, on this occasion Ostersund, 1-3. Last season they toughed out two 0-0 draws with Prishtina from Kosovo, progressing 5-4 on penalties only to get whacked 9-1 on aggregate by Belgian neighbours Genk. 

Fola are back in Europe for the 8th season in a row, and I am sure they were feeling confident as they trotted out at Stade Emilie Mayrisch (capacity 4,900, less for European games) against Georgian side Chikhura Sachkhere, who were also playing in their sixth consecutive European campaign, having started with an away goal progression against Vaduz as recently as 2013/14. That said, Georgia’s league is a summer league and Chikhura were 21 games into the season when they arrived in Esch, so match fitness was on their side, although I suspect they’ll be resigned to missing out on Europe next season as they are hovering nearer the relegation play off slot. Chikhura’s European record has impressive wins over Bursaspor and Beitar Jerusalem, while only Maribor and Thun have beaten them by more than a goal, 2-0 in both cases. The winner of this tie would be playing Aberdeen, a potential re-match for Fola should they get through, it promised to be a tight occasion!

The stadium is in the trees high above Esch, and the kean observer will spot one floodlight peeking out above the trees as the train comes round the bend into the station. It is about one mile from the railway station, two thirds of which is a serious uphill trek. Unlike Jeunesse, this is a ground in a very well to do area of the town, and there are no amenities anywhere nearby. The Fola fan base lacks the community togetherness and camaraderie that the Jeunesse fans exhibit, perhaps as they are more obviously the monied club of the duo. There social media and online presence leaves a lot to be desired too, and even on a big European night, not to have any club souvenirs available for the visiting fans amongst the 1,100 crowd was disappointing, as well as being the poorest attendance of the trio of games, albeit only by a few hundred. Even the beakers of beer seem a little on the frugal side here! Despite having been at Jeunesse cheering the opposition, you can probably tell I warmed to them more!  

A little rain greeted the kick off, and with uncovered seats, thankfully what stewards were visible weren’t insisting on everyone sitting per the ludicrous UEFA edict! A variety of shed roof overhangs and trees acted as temporary umbrellas. Kick off was 95 minutes later than the game at Jeunesse as this was Thursday, Europa League day, but the air was also significantly cooler anyway, making for a faster pace to the game right from the off. Chikhura immediately looked more organised and sharp, but Fola weren’t for sitting back either, which helped make this one an entertaining spectacle. A first half penalty put Fola in front, but on the hour mark a Chikhura free kick crashed off the bar and from the resultant rebound Sardalishvili was first to react and equalise. Fola pressed forward bringing a couple of good saves from the Georgian keeper, but the visitors were always lively on the break. With the clock ticking down, they broke into the Fola box, and over exuberance to prevent a shot saw the Fola defender tangle with the Chikhura forward and down he went, allowing the Azeri ref pointed to the spot once more. It was nicely taken, sparking great scenes of delight amongst the little pockets of Georgian fans. Given Chikhura’s excellent European record, despite never having played at their home stadium, Aberdeen look to have the longer trek to the wonderful country of Georgia in the next round. Fola didn’t offer me enough, like Jeunesse, to make me think either can progress and keep the Luxembourg star flying high in the next round, but F91 and Progres should make it.

This game brought the curtain down on my little Grand Duchy tour. I failed to see any of the local teams win, or indeed glimpse any signs that the Luxembourg game is on the cusp of moving up a notch, but it is a wonderful wee country, and while they enjoy their football, it does not rule lives here, and I like that. The pace of living is relaxed out with the capital, and that is reflected in its football too. None of the towns I stayed in or visited, aside from Luxembourg City are anything more than functional and tidy, they have no big draw attractions, but that doesn’t mean they lack character. Luxembourg has its own array of football folklore already, and a re-match between Progres and Rangers might just add to its pantheon!

 

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