Why Luxembourg is no longer a punching bag in World Cup qualifying
After stunning one of Europe's soccer giants by scoring the winner against Real Madrid in the Champions League, anything seems possible for Sébastien Thill.
Even taking tiny Luxembourg to the World Cup.
"Mathematically it's still possible," Thill said about his country's chances to reach next year's World Cup in Qatar. "Why not one day go to a big tournament with Luxembourg? Everyone wants to achieve that. That's what we train for. We are heading into the last (qualifying) games to win them."
Reaching Qatar might be a bit of a stretch, but picturing Luxembourg at a major tournament is far from laughable these days.
Thill is among a new generation of players who have turned Luxembourg — with a population of little over 600,000 — from a European punching bag in qualifiers to a widely respected team that plays a confident passing game.
When Thill netted the winning goal for Moldovan club Sheriff against Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium last month, he became the first player from Luxembourg to score in the Champions League.
And ahead of Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, Luxembourg was third in Group A following wins over Ireland and Azerbaijan. The 94th-ranked team — nicknamed the Red Lions — has even given group leader Serbia and second-place Portugal a fright.
Serbia eked out a narrow 1-0 win at the brand-new Luxembourg Stadium on Saturday, while Thill's team took the lead against Portugal in March before losing 3-1 at home.
That game against Portugal, at the now defunct Josy Barthel Stadium in Luxembourg, nearly saw one of Thill's other big dreams come true when he was brought on as a substitute in the 58th minute. But off, at the same time, came his younger brothers Olivier and Vincent Thill — denying the three of them a chance to play together for the national team.
"Of course, it's a goal of ours to play on the same pitch together," Thill said. "It could happen in the next few months, when Vincent is fit again."
To call the Thills a football family would be an understatement.
Olivier and Vincent both play for Vorskla Poltava in Ukraine's top division. Their parents, Serge Thill and Nathalie Hoeltgen, are both former Luxembourg internationals themselves.
"Of course we all dream about (them playing together)," Hoeltgen said. "We are a family. It would be sensational. They all would deserve it; they are all fighting and training for the chance to play together again."
Sébastien and Olivier Thill played the full 90 minutes against Serbia on Saturday, when Vincent was out with an injury.
The three brothers aren't the only reason why Luxembourg is now able to compete with bigger nations. Other members of the national team play for clubs in Germany, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and the United States (Maxime Chanot of New York City FC).
That's a far cry from the lineups of the past few decades, when heavy defeats and zero attempts on goal were the norm and the team was largely made up of amateurs.
"We've got a nice mix of young and experienced players," Sébastien Thill said. "Most of us are playing in good clubs abroad. Our national team has never played this well."
Thill singled out the likes of Leandro Barreiro at German Bundesliga club Mainz 05, and Christopher Martins, who was part of the Young Boys team that beat Manchester United in this year's Champions League group stage. And then there's star striker Gerson Rodrigues, currently on loan at French club Troyes from Dynamo Kyiv in Ukraine.
Luxembourg's soccer academy is also churning out promising young players who are often snapped up by professional teams abroad.
"Look at the players we have," said father Serge Thill. "It's hard to even get in the squad these days."
Serge Thill played 14 games for Luxembourg in the 1990s, back when the team seemed preordained to lose every match. Also representing his country at the time was Luc Holtz, now the longtime coach of a resurgent team. Under Holtz, Luxembourg has already left other small European soccer nations like Malta, Cyprus, and Liechtenstein firmly in its wake.
"We can't compare ourselves to Portugal but Luxembourg are being underestimated and are getting better and better," Serge Thill said.
So perhaps Sébastien Thill, whose left calf is tattooed with an image of himself dreaming of the Champions League trophy, isn't being totally unrealistic when setting the target of qualifying for a major tournament.
Especially since the family already has reinforcements coming up through the ranks.
The youngest Thill brother is 11-year-old Marek, who trains five times a week and already plays for Luxembourg's under-13 side.
So could we even see four Thill brothers on the pitch for Luxembourg one day?
"In five years, it could happen," Sébastien Thill said. "But our first goal is for three of us to make it.”
Philip Crowther contributed to this report.
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