On the 28th of November, FC Lugano, a Swiss club who compete in the Swiss Super League, traveled to the capital for another league game. Not the capital of Switzerland though.
Instead, the team took a one-and-a-half-hour drive to the capital of Liechtenstein to play FC Vaduz, the best club in the country. Their country.
No league system
Liechtenstein is the only European country with no league system, since there are only seven teams in the country. As a result, all clubs from the country play in nearby Switzerland, competing in the various tiers of the Swiss Super League.
This can lead to unusual scenarios – FC Vaduz can declare themselves Swiss champions if they came 1st in the league. They can not, however, claim a Swiss berth in the Champions League or UEFA Cup.
The reason? FC Vaduz are guaranteed a UEFA Europa League First Qualifying Round spot if they win the Liechtenstein Cup, the trophy that determines the best club in the sixth-smallest country in the world – a trophy they have won 17 out of the last 18 times.
There are other strange scenarios to consider too – if FC Vaduz win the Europa League then they do not get a Champions League berth – not even a Europa League spot in the group stage; they must win the national Cup and go through the qualifying stages all over again.
The curious thing is that if Liechtenstein did have their own league, their national coefficient would be sufficient enough to guarantee the league winner a Champions League qualifier spot.
So close…and yet so far
But first FC Vaduz have to reach the Europa League group stages – which they have never done even though they are virtually guaranteed a qualifying spot year-on-year.
They’ve been extremely unlucky in this regard – coming very close in some cases – yet have never experienced the Europa League since the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup was wound down in 1999. Apart from 2012 when they lost the national Cup, they have tried every year without any success.
But they have come close. In 2002, they were one second away from reaching the first round of the UEFA Cup. The aggregate scores were level but Scottish club Livingston were in the UEFA Cup courtesy of an away goal, when Marius Zarn hit a shot off a corner, and scored the goal that would make Liechtenstein proud.
Controversially, the referee blew the whistle just before the ball crossed over the line, and Livingston were through.
Since 2004, the qualification now has three rounds and not one, which makes qualification even harder. But FC Vaduz haven’t given up. In 2006 they overturned a 1-0 loss to beat Hungarian outfit Újpest 4-0, an exhibition of class that raised their profile. In the second round they faced first-division Swiss powerhouse FC Basel, who were sure contenders for the trophy.
FC Vaduz secured a famous 2-1 win – which pleased the fans given the budget gap between them. Vaduz were knocked out on the away goals rule – again – but the club knew that the fight for a group stage berth was getting closer.
And, this summer, they did come even closer – the closest they’ve come in their history. They beat San Marino club S.P. La Fiorita 10-1 on aggregate, then delivered Estonian club Nõmme Kalju a 5-1 drubbing over two legs – a club that has never been relegated from the top flight. But then, in a stark reminder of the ghosts of 2002, they were out on away goals yet again, this time against Swiss ‘compatriots’ FC Thun. Vaduz again had a late corner. They again had a shot on goal; just this time, sadly, it didn’t go in.
FC Vaduz have played in Europe in the past. In 1996, the club beat Latvian club Universitate Riga in the qualifying round on penalties, after two 1–1 draws. In doing so, they reached the First Round of the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup. Understandably, the fans were excited.
Even more when they learnt that their opponents were Paris St. Germain. And not so much when they lost by seven goals without reply over two legs.
They have never got past the qualifying rounds since.
Location, location, location…
What do David Beckham, Michael Owen, Luís Figo, Raúl, Fernando Torres, David Silva, David Villa, Fredrik Ljungberg, David Alaba, Edin Džeko, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski, and Zlatan Ibrahimović all have in common? They’ve all scored a goal at the Rheinpark Stadion, a structure mere meters away from the border of Switzerland and on the banks of the River Rhine. It is the home of the Liechtenstein national football team and FC Vaduz.
It is this prime location, combined with a fantastic coaching team (which includes legendary former Liechtenstein defender Daniel Hasler), which makes Vaduz a fantastic venue for youth development. They share great relationships with FC Basel and BSC Young Boys.
FC Basel have sent Yann Sommer, the goalkeeper of the Swiss national team, North Korean star striker Pak Kwang-Ryong and Albanian international defender Naser Aliji for loan spells at the club.
This season, Young Boys sent the Swiss duo of midfielder Moreno Costanzo and left-back Thomas Fekete. Even Porto took advantage of the Liechtenstein club’s ability to hone young talent and underrated potential – this season the main striker at FC Vaduz is Paraguayan Mauro Caballero.
FC Vaduz have been in the top flight for only three years since their inception in 1932. That might be an achievement in itself, since of the other Liechtenstein clubs, two are in the fourth division, one is in the sixth and three are in the seventh tier.
Including reserve teams (which do take part in the Liechtenstein Cup), there are 17 teams in total – some languishing as low as the ninth (and last) tier of Swiss football.
And it is an achievement. FC Vaduz reached the second division only in 2001 and have never gone below that since.
They competed in the 2008-09 top flight for the first time in their history, but were relegated being 13 points from safety. After languishing in the second division, they returned in 2014, where they managed to avoid relegation by a solitary point.
This season looks no different – FC Vaduz will either narrowly avoid relegation or be relegated altogether, given how well the other clubs have strengthened.
Moreover, FC Vaduz’s meager budget of €4.2 million means that quality player additions are impossible – even though they are owned by the Princely Family of Liechtenstein and are sponsored by Liechtenstein’s national bank LLB, and investment firm MBPI.
The shocking departure of talented Swiss keeper Andreas Hirzel to Hamburger SV for just €50,000 confirms the poor state of the club, and former Swiss right-back and current director of football Bernt Haas has his hands tied.
Slowly but surely, the best team in Liechtenstein is trying for success through the long-drawn nature of the qualifying rounds. This season, they were unbeaten in the qualifying rounds, yet still didn’t achieve their goal.
Currently they are bottom of the table, one place and one point from safety.
Hopefully, they can avoid the drop again.