Football: Thinking the unthinkable

Luxembourg are more prepared than ever - but only to counter the hooligan threat.
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The Independent Online
EVEN TAKING into account England's past blunders against supposedly inferior opposition and the inevitability of Glenn Hoddle warning us that "there are no easy matches these days", some ought to be a lot easier than others. Failure to beat Luxembourg in the Stade Josy Barthel on Wednesday would be tantamount to a non-League club succeeding against, say, Arsenal.

But then after yesterday's depressing draw against Bulgaria, the unthinkable is possible. There is no need to look beyond Luxembourg's record in their attempt to qualify for last summer's World Cup finals to see that they are a long way off the pace. They lost all eight matches, scored only twice and conceded 22 goals.

Their most creditable performance was a 2-1 home defeat by the eventual group winners, Bulgaria, in Luxembourg, but their coach, Paul Philipp, suggested afterwards that it was a result to remove the idea that Luxembourg were the whipping boys of European football. Later results suggested he was over-optimistic, although a 3-0 defeat by Poland last night was not as humiliating as expected.

Their record against England is not going to provide inspiration. It shows that they have lost all seven previous meetings including two 9- 0 thrashings, the most recent at Wembley in 1982. Indeed they have not scored a goal against England on the last four occasions. In their history of international football, their most glorious moment was a defeat of Portugal (including Eusebio) in a World Cup qualifier, but that was in 1961.

Even the country's club results this season harbour no comfort. Their champions, Jeunesse d'Esch, lost 8-0 on aggregate to Grasshopper Zurich in the Champions' League, and Union lost 7-0 to IFK Gothenburg in the Uefa Cup. Grevenmacher also struggled in the Cup-Winners' Cup, losing 8-2 to Rapid Bucharest.

All of this is of less interest to the people of the Grand Duchy than whether or not England's fans can be trusted not to wreck their pleasant city in the way some of them did on the last visit in 1983. With the pathetic excuse of being disappointed not to have qualified for the European Championship finals, hooligans went on the rampage.

The rioting cost Luxembourg thousands of pounds but saw only 13 arrests and nine English offenders fined or imprisoned. The instant reaction of government officials was to say that because this was the second time the city had been savaged (similar events took place in 1977), England would never again play there. Time changed that resolution but has not healed the memory. This time the local police will be better prepared, less tolerant and reinforced. Philipp played down the remnants of ill- feeling towards the English fans but added: "This time we will not be taken by surprise."

Being modest by international standards, Luxembourg rarely receive invitations to play friendlies against high quality opponents. Even before the World Cup they were not involved in many warm-ups. They lost 2-0 to the fading Cameroon team and in early summer suffered a 7-0 crushing by the Germans. Earlier they had experimented with six new players and lost 2-1 to the German club Nuremburg. In international football terms this landlocked country floats somewhere between the Solomon Islands and Fiji.

After predictably failing to qualify for the World Cup, Philipp attempted to rebuild. One of the more experienced and reliable midfield players, Claude Canser, retired from international football, leaving room for the promising Georges Fernandez, but the disappointing results continued.

Of the better quality players, the Russian-born top domestic league striker Mikhail Zaritski has moved to Fortuna, of Cologne, while Manuel Cardoni, a capable midfield player, also has experience in the Bundesliga. When the draw was made last January "Team England" were in more confident mood than they are today, but the sequence of substantial English victories over the mixture of professionals and amateurs of a country in which a big crowd is between 3,000 and 4,000 should not be disturbed.