Wait, So Luxembourg Is Actually Decent? Plus Other European Minnows On The Ascent
Luxembourg is rarely a country that is mentioned in discussions of European football. A victory over the Republic of Ireland and a good performance against Portugal during World Cup qualifiers back in March made a few headlines, but few people outside of Luxembourg understand how far football has come in the country in the last decade.
While sitting 96th in the FIFA World Rankings is not overly impressive, for a country that was once considered one of the worst in the world, this is a minor miracle. But the question now becomes, can Luxembourg take the next step forward and become a side that puts up a legitimate challenge during tournament qualification — possibly even making a Euro?
This jump, while improbable, is not unheard of. Just ask Iceland. With a focus on grassroots football, the Nordic country rose from 120th to 22nd in the FIFA World Rankings within a span of six years, reaching the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 and qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
One also can't forget about Wales who rose 100 places in the rankings during the same stretch as Iceland. Ryan Giggs' team reached a Euro semifinal and has been a top-20 team in the world after qualifying for just one of the previous 30 international tournaments.
Luxembourg is not alone in its recent improvements; here are a few other countries (along with everyone's favorite land-locked European nation) that have demonstrated that they might be the next teams to take European football by storm.
European Minnows on the Rise
After winning back-to-back Euro 1996 qualifying matches against the Czech Republic and Malta in 1995, Luxembourg went on an unprecedented winless run. The small landlocked country between Belgium, France and Germany went 83 consecutive matches without a victory from November 1995 to February 2007. This streak was ended after a 2-1 friendly triumph over Gambia, and later that year, Luxembourg finally earned a competitive win by defeating Belarus 1-0 in Euro 2008 qualifying.
Luxembourg bottomed out in the FIFA World Rankings at 186th in 2006, but in the years since, the Red Lions have become a respectable footballing side. They rose from 142nd to 83rd in the rankings between 2015 and 2017, earning victories against Greece and Hungary — among others — during this stretch, while also holding France in a nil-nil draw. These types of results have helped the country stay in the top 100 since.
UEFA Nations League play has been especially beneficial to the sovereign state. Luxembourg earned promotion from League D in 2018, then nearly earned promotion from League C last year. The side continued this good form into 2022 World Cup Qualifying, earning a historic victory against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin and then taking the lead against Portugal in the following match before falling 3-1.
Domestic football in Luxembourg has also improved, as F91 Dudelange was the first Luxembourgeoise club to qualify for the Europa League group stage in 2018/19. The club repeated the same feat the following year. With the likes of Leandro Barreiro starring for Mainz in the Bundesliga, Christopher Martins at Swiss side Young Boys and FIFA favorite Gerson Rodrigues playing for Ukranian club Dynamo Kyiv — as well as others in Belgium and the Netherlands — Luxembourg has players toiling at the highest levels of European football.
Luxembourg may be a country of just 600,000 people, but it has experienced a 40 percent increase in population since 2000 while also significantly increasing the number of professional players in its talent pool — the latter the result of significant efforts from the national football federation.
"We start watching players from the age of nine or 10." Paul Philipp, president of the Luxembourg Football Federation says. "The best players we then bring into our national center, and we keep them until they’re 18. They play at the weekend with their clubs, but the rest of the time they are with us. That’s where their real education takes place."
Don't be surprised if Luxembourg becomes the next Iceland by the end of the decade.
Perhaps few countries are more difficult to beat than Georgia, which has one of Europe's most underrated defenses. A 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands in the first week of June was just the second time that the side allowed more than two goals in its last 42 matches. During this stretch, Georgia nearly beat Spain, tied the Republic of Ireland (twice), and drew Denmark. Prior to this stretch, Georgia actually defeated Spain 1-0 in a friendly in 2016, by far the biggest victory in the country's history.
While these results seem improbable now, Georgia was something of a dark horse in the 1990's. Led by Manchester City cult hero Georgi Kinkladze, the country won five of its ten matches at Euro 96 qualifying — including a 5-0 thumping of Wales in Tbilisi — then beating Poland and earning a draw against Italy during World Cup qualifying in 1997.
Georgia dropped as low as 125th in the FIFA rankings in 2014 before rising as high as 89th last year — hovering around 90th over the past few seasons. As for the talent on the pitch, none of them have succeeded in England like Kinkladze did, but Georgia has numerous players competing in the top flight in Russia, Turkey, Austria and Poland, plus the Spanish second tier.
The Crusaders also have Shakhtar defender Davit Khocholava, who made four Champions League starts this past season, plus a pair of extremely promising young attackers in Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Giorgi Chakvetadze.
Kvaratskhelia, a 20-year-old winger for Rubin Kazan, had four goals and four assists in 23 Russian Premier League appearances this season and is valued at $19.8 million by Transfermarkt — the highest valuation of any Georgian player. As for Chakvetadze, the winger joined Gent in 2017, choosing the Belgian side instead of Liverpool, Tottenham and Bayer Leverkusen. He made ten Jupiler Pro League appearances as an 18-year-old in 17/18, but knee injuries have kept him on the bench for significant periods since.
Georgia already has a stout defense, but if their young attacking talents continue to grow, the Crusaders could become more than spoilers in World Cup and Euro qualification.
While Kosovo's first FIFA-recognized friendly came in 2014, its competitive debut came two years later — a 1-1 draw against Finland in 2016. After a promising start, the side lost its next nine qualifying matches — being outscored 23-2 in the process. Formerly a Yugoslavian and then a Serbian province, the partially-recognized state of Kosovo was ranked as low as 177th in the world in 2017, but has since become a very competent international side.
The team is in a unique position, as players that have previously played for other national sides are eligible to play for the newly-formed team — something that is usually not allowed under FIFA rules. Kosovo is not a United Nations member, which does complicate things, but its player pool should only continue to grow.
Kosovo earned 11 points from eight matches in Euro 2020 qualifying, including wins over the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Montenegro — good enough for third in the five-team group. The side also put three goals past England, even taking the lead in the first minute before falling 5-3.
The last 12 months though have been tougher. In 2020, the country was nearly relegated from League C in the UEFA Nations League then lost to North Macedonia in the Euro 2020 playoff semifinals. Both of Kosovo's competitive matches in 2021 have been defeats as well, although they did come against difficult opposition in Sweden and Spain.
The side has numerous players competing in one of the "Big 5" European leagues. Amir Rrahmani and Vedat Muriqi both ply their trade in Serie A; Rrahmani, a center back, who is with Hellas Verona but spent this season on loan with Napoli, while Muriqi plays striker for Lazio after a string of successful seasons in Turkey.
Kosovo also has Milot Rashica, a winger who has 20 goals and 12 assists across three Bundesliga seasons for Werder Bremen. The side boasts Valon Berisha, a former Norwegian international with top-flight experience in Germany, Italy and France. The country also has a significant footballing presence in Switzerland and the EFL Championship, among other leagues.
While Georgia is known for low-scoring contests, Kosovan fixtures are noticeably more goal-oriented for both sides involved. For every match that Kosovo puts three in the back of the net, there are others where the side concedes three or four times — with the latter being more prevalent. Georgia and Kosovo will face off twice in World Cup qualification before the end of the year, which should provide an interesting contrast between two up-and-coming teams.