Football: No stress for Duchy's Strasser

Luxembourg's woeful international record does not trouble one of their few professionals. By John Sinnott
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The Independent Online
LUXEMBOURG, WHO entertain England tomorrow in a Euro 2000 qualifier, have always adopted a discreet approach to the business of winning football matches - somewhat appropriately considering the tax haven's attitude to the movement of money.

The Grand Duchy's international record is summed up by their campaign to qualify for France 98: two goals and no points from eight games. There have been flashes of illumination but, invariably, they have been quickly dimmed. Three years ago Luxembourg produced their best result, beating the Czech Republic 1-0 in a European Championship qualifier, courtesy of a 90th-minute goal by Guy Hellers.

Earlier the same year, Luxembourg overpowered Malta 1-0, which was their first international win in nearly 90 games - a record stretching back 21 years to November 1973, and another 1-0 victory, this time over Norway in a friendly.

Luxembourg's other notable international scalp came in October 1963 when they beat the Netherlands 2-1 in a European qualifying match in Rotterdam.

Playing for Luxembourg could, then, be considered a soul-destroying experience. The reverse is the case, however, according to the defender Jeff Strasser, one of the few professionals playing for Luxembourg. "You have the chance to play against other international teams, which a lot of other players would like to have but never will," said Strasser, who plays his club football for Metz in France.

"I'm proud to play for Luxembourg, even if we don't get such great results and it's unlikely that we'll ever qualify for a major championship. But on Wednesday it will be wonderful to play against a great football nation like England.

"Every time I play for Luxembourg I go out on to the pitch filled with pleasure and the desire to win. I don't go out thinking how much we're going to lose by, though I do go out knowing it will be difficult. In football, one team must win and one must lose," he added philosophically.

Points, draws, wins, even goals might be hard to come by, but Paul Philipp's job is probably safer than that of his England counterpart, Glenn Hoddle. Philipp, who played for the Belgian clubs Union St Gilloise, Standard Liege and Charleroi, has been Luxembourg's coach since 1985.

"I think Philipp is a very good trainer considering the conditions that he's working under," Strasser said. "Most of my team-mates play part-time. For example, the goalkeeper, Paul Koch, works in a bank so the coach doesn't have enough time to prepare for games. The biggest problem is that the part-time players struggle physically."

Strasser will probably be asked by Philipp to mark Alan Shearer. Two years ago, he did a similar job when Metz were knocked out of the Uefa Cup by Newcastle. To the defender's credit, Shearer did not score in either of the two legs.

Strasser was impressed with the England striker's sense of positioning and attitude: "He didn't say anything even after I'd fouled him." The Metz defender was only nine years old when Luxembourg last met England in the European Championship, a visit noteworthy more for the wave of hooliganism inflicted on the Grand Duchy than for another international defeat (4-0 for the record). Despite that, Strasser maintains he is a big fan of English football and regularly watches Canal Plus's coverage on a Sunday.

The 24-year-old defender was spotted by Metz when he was playing for Union Luxembourg 10 years ago. "I knew I wanted to be a professional footballer but I didn't know whether I could make the grade, so I stayed on at school until I was 18," he said.

"Attending Metz's football school was difficult at first because I didn't speak French. At that age everyone wants to be a professional, so every day you have to be better than the other player who is vying for your position. That's a hard lesson, but a good lesson because life is like that."

Last year Strasser helped Metz to second place in the French league and a place in the European Cup. However, this season the Alsatian club have produced a sequence of poor results even Luxembourg might blanch at. Knocked out of both the European and Uefa Cups, Metz have made the worst start to a season ever by a French First Division club.

Despite the problems he faces for both club and country, Strasser remains upbeat, and points out Luxembourg are building a national football centre at Mondercange, where in future all players in the national sides from the age of 13 upwards will train. It could be worth hedging a bet on Luxembourg winning a game in the next millennium.

Luxembourg will have to make do without their playmaker Marc Birsens, who was sent off in Saturday's 3-0 defeat to Poland. Two other midfielders, Dany Theis and Jeff Saibene are also doubtful with thigh injuries. Joel Groff and Luc Beffort have been called up.

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