FC Vaduz play in the second tier of the Swiss Football League at their Rheinpark Stadium home in the Principality of Liechtenstein
Vaduz (AFP) - Tiny Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz are enjoying their greatest adventure, contesting the group stage of European competition – a “miracle” for a club from a microstate too small to have its own league.
The country’s only professional team are in an exceptional position: Vaduz participate in the league system of neighbouring Switzerland, but can only get into Europe via Liechtenstein’s domestic cup.
“We are really in a special situation,” club president Patrick Burgmeier told AFP.
There are well-known major football clubs competing in the leagues of neighbouring countries, such as Cardiff or Monaco.
However, unlike them, second-tier Vaduz cannot enter their host country’s cup; and if they ever they topped the Swiss Super League, they would not be crowned champions or be eligible for the UEFA Champions League.
The Principality of Liechtenstein, population 39,000, is wedged between Switzerland and Austria. Its 160 square kilometres comprise a sliver of flat land beside the River Rhine and towering Alpine mountains.
FC Vaduz's home ground is next to the River Rhine, overlooked by the Alps
There are only seven football clubs in the wealthy German-speaking microstate. Founded in 1932, Vaduz are in the Challenge League, the Swiss second division, with the others at levels four to seven in the Swiss pyramid.
Serial winners of the Liechtenstein Cup – their 48 domestic cup titles constitute a world record – Vaduz first played in European competition in 1992.
However, neither they nor any other Liechtenstein club has ever made it beyond the qualifying rounds – until now.
- Goodnight Vienna! -
The launch of the UEFA Europa Conference League last season, a third tier of European football below the Champions League and the Europa League, gave more clubs the chance of playing on the continental stage.
In this year’s qualifying rounds, Vaduz beat Slovenian cup winners Koper, then Turkey’s Konyaspor.
Vaduz next beat Rapid Vienna 2-1 on aggregate to secure a spot in the Conference League group stage.
“It’s bigger than everything we have achieved before. It’s unbelievable what we have done. We had nothing to lose and you could feel the team believed in that miracle,” said Burgmeier.
Liechtenstein's FC Vaduz are competing for the UEFA Europa Conference League trophy after reaching the group stages of European competition for the first time
He stressed: “The victories were not stolen – we were better than Rapid Vienna!”
In the competition proper, they were drawn in Group E against AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands, Ukrainian league leaders Dnipro-1 and Cypriot champions Apollon Limassol.
Vaduz have drawn two and lost two of their group games so far and must beat visitors AZ on Thursday to maintain hopes of progressing in the competition.
“We are really trying to enjoy the last two games, the feeling and atmosphere,” said Burgmeier, 42, a former Liechtenstein defender.
- Realism in Alpine idyll -
The club’s 5,900-seater Rheinpark Stadium sits beside the Rhine and therefore the Swiss border, with the Prince of Liechtenstein’s Vaduz Castle and the Alps providing a stunning backdrop.
FC Vaduz currently draws around 1,400 spectators – down from nearly 4,000 when in the Super League.
Vaduz have spent five seasons in the Swiss top tier, all since 2008, including four of the last eight seasons.
But its ambitions are modest: with a budget of around five million Swiss francs ($5 million), Vaduz’s goal is to be a community-focused top-half club in the Challenge League.
“We like to go with realistic visions more than dreams,” said Burgmeier.
The national parliament building in Liechtenstein's capital Vaduz, where lawmakers represent the country's 39,000 inhabitants
“It’s not really realistic to always have the goal to get promoted to the Super League: there are just too many bigger teams.”
Vaduz wants to expand its fan base by creating a deeper connection with people in Liechtenstein and across the border.
“It’s important for us to stand on a healthy footing,” the club’s president said.
“We really want to be a good platform for young players and the fixed point of professional football in the region,” developing players from Liechtenstein and Switzerland too.
Regardless of Thursday’s result, Vaduz are enjoying the journey.
“This year has been incredible,” said Burgmeier.