Football: Philipp's spirit knows no bounds
Luxembourg have won only three times in 14 years on the international stage but their coach retains his enthusiasm and motivation
Thursday 02 September 1999
Here is a man who has been the guardian of a side that, like Oliver Twist and gruel, has an insatiable appetite for more. More defeats that is. Luxembourg, under Philipp, have won just three times in 14 years of international football.
The Luxembourg coach, whose team face England at Wembley on Saturday, had to wait nearly 10 years for his first win and when it came it was like waiting for the bus; two followed in quick succession. That trio of victories came during the Euro 96 qualifying programme. Two were against Malta - hardly cause to crack open the bubbly - but the 1-0 home victory over the Czech Republic certainly was. "I went out with my staff after that one," recalls Philipp. "A meal with some drinks, but not too much. But enough, because the day after was not so good."
Luxembourg's flirtation with football respectability quickly proved still- born. The Grand Duchy picked up nil points in their qualifying campaign for France 98, while their quest for Euro 2000 glory so far has seen the land-locked country lose all five games, scoring two goals and conceding 13. Their best performance has been the 3-2 home defeat to Poland back in June.
As a player, Philipp, in a 54- game international playing career that began in 1969 and finished in 1980, underwent the perfect grounding for his current role. Asked to recall his favourite memory, he replies unhesitatingly: "We won a friendly game at home 2-1 against Mexico and I made the second goal."
He also played in the 5-0 defeat at Wembley in 1977 against an England team inspired by Kevin Keegan. "That was the first time that Luxembourg had played at Wembley. I remember Keegan very well, not only because of the game, but because at that moment he was one of the best players in Europe. He was and probably still is one of the big men in European football."
Philipp, however, cautions that England's "big man" might have big problems in qualifying for Euro 2000. "I think that England will struggle, though it's still possible. England have so, so many great players and they should be the best team in the group, but Sweden are the best organised, especially away from home."
Philipp, after playing for the Belgian clubs Union St Gilloise, Standard Liege and Charleroi, studied for his coaching diploma in Brussels before he returned to coach the Luxembourg side Avenir Beggen. He succeeded Louis Pilot as the national coach in September 1985.
"When you're 34 and you become coach of a national team you go through the wall," says Philipp of those early years. "You don't look left, you don't look right, you just look straight ahead. Now that I'm more experienced, I'm looking around more. From the psychological point of view, I think I've made a lot of progess."
Philipp, as with his playing career, has continued to draw inspiration from abroad, regularly attending coaching conferences as well as visiting clubs. His trips to the Netherlands have made the biggest impression.
"Ten years ago everybody was talking about tactics. In Holland they spoke only about animation. Notice the change when they have the ball and when they don't have the ball; Holland make that adjustment perfectly."
To Philipp's intense frustration, few of his international charges have shown a similar enthusiasm for football's equivalent of the European tour. This Saturday at Wembley only one of Luxembourg's players - Jeff Strasser of Kaiserslautern - will be from a club outside the Grand Duchy.
"That's our big problem," says Philipp. "Previously we've had five or six professionals playing outside and that meant that the other players were growing from that contact.
"It's an easy life if you're a player in Luxembourg. You get money from your club, from the international team and from your job."
Philipp is so concerned by Luxembourg's navel-gazing tendencies that he has recently helped to place a couple of promising teenagers - Pablo Sanchez and Rene Peters - with Standard Liege. "We're trying to give them a mentality that they cannot enter the easy life, so they learn that you have to fight to become a professional player."
If coaching Luxembourg is a task that might have proved too much even for Hercules, Philipp shows no sign of losing his motivation for the impossible job. "When I took on the job I made myself one promise; the first time I went to training without enthusiasm then I would stop. The job is more difficult than it was 10 years ago. But my motivation has grown because it's more difficult."
He's left no stone unturned in his efforts to bring about a change in Luxembourg's fortunes, at one point even bringing in a psychologist. "It was useful for one player who had some private problems. But to be truthful you have to know football, otherwise you cannot discuss the problems of football.
"When you're a good coach - and I don't say I am a good coach - I think part of the job is to be a good psychologist, to be able to talk to the players. The players must have confidence in you. When they know that they can talk to you about their private problems then you know you've taken a big step as a coach."
Over the years Philipp, despite his less than flattering international CV, has been courted by clubs in Belgium and Germany, but so far he has not been tempted.
"You always try and build something. It always seemed a bad point when the offers came and I still had a contract," he said. "You never know what the future will bring. I would like to manage a professional club. It's such a different experience because you have more opportunities to make your mark when you have the players twice a day."
The American sportsman Henry `Red' Sanders said that "winning isn't everything. It's the only thing". It is an attitude that has yet to be assimilated in Luxembourg - but Philipp will not rest until it is.
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