Although Easter is not normally a good time to travel, with high prices all around due to school holidays, I found good enough prices to allow me to go to the airport at the centre of nowhere, Frankfurt Hahn. Flying out of a Saturday, back on a Sunday, I thought I might miss some of the high holiday traffic, but too many other people had similar thoughts; both Stansted and my plane proving to be as busy as ever.
Saturday was the day for the Coupe de Luxembourg. I love Luxembourg, few smaller places can have such a confused history. The country was once four times in current size, although not then properly constituted as a country. The French, Germans (or Prussians), and Belgians taking giant slices off it at various times, while Napoleon just claimed the whole territory for France, (it was the treaty after the defeat of Napoleon that defined the Grand Duchy, less the Prussian bits – Belgium snatched its selection a few years later, and even grabbed a bit of the German slice in 1919).
The major languages are French and German, but then there is always the local language, Luxembourgish sitting somewhere in the background. Added to this, the country’s position at the centre of Europe have drawn in other people from all over the EU and many from further afield. Fortunately for me, most of the locals speak English as well. Luxembourg has a single professional league of 14 teams, although with average crowds, one wonders if this is completely full time. The second division, known as Promotion D’Honneur (in French, anyway) is also a National division of 14 teams, while there is a small pyramid of more localised leagues below this. All the teams play in the National Cup, with the more senior clubs exempt from the earlier rounds. In February, all the top division teams entered and all were given away draws. Eight of them went through and of these, seven had away ties at Easter, the exception being the one all top division tie, there was also one tie which was only Promotion D’Honneur teams, (two lower teams had made it to this round).
My first match was at FC Mamer 32. The name tells you most of what you need to know about the club, it comes from Mamer (a small town, just West of the capital), it is a football club, and it was founded in 1932. In 2006, they won promotion into the top division, but had a miserable season, finishing bottom of the table and were replaced by PH champions, the rather over-named Rapid Mansfeldia Hamm Benfica. Hamm Benfica play in the capital, and have merged several different club names over the years, including FC Hamm 37, Manseldia Clausen, Rapid Neudorf, and from 1986, Rapid Mansfeldia. Playing for a while as Rapid Mansfeldia Hamm for a few years, they were ‘adopted’ by local fans of the Portuguese club Benfica two years ago. It appears that any connection between this club and the Portuguese giants is tenuous at most, although it may be part of a plot to take over Europe. There is already a Benfica club in London as well, although Sport London e Benfica (the Lisbon club’s official name is Sport Lisboa e Benfica) plays only in the Spartan South Midlands League.
In London, the Benfica club is linked to the local Portuguese population through its players, while its only support are friends and relations of the players; in Luxembourg, it is the supporters who are Portuguese, whereas the team is from a wide range of sources such as the Congo, Tunisia, France, Portugal and even Luxembourg.
The town of Mamer seems small, quiet and mainly residential (and by and large, closed – as shops and bars all seemed to be closed), but when I drove a little further down the road, I found a hive of activity in the form of a major out of town shopping mall, featuring C&A and Habitat (there was a time where you could find something different in the shops by travellng). Returning back towards the centre, past a school named after Josy Barthel, Mamer’s only ever Olympic gold medallist (actually, Luxembourg’s only ever Olympic gold medallist), one finds the football ground. It is next to a sports hall and within a running track, and overlooks a field between here and the town hall. There is one small covered stand, clearly recently erected, probably in honour of Mamer playing in the top division last season.
The match ticket is €6, which thanks to a drop in the value of the pound is almost £5, there is no programme, but just an magazine giving an annual review of the club. I soon find out why Hamm Benfica were promoted and Mamer were relegated last season – the visitors are ahead after just three minutes, thanks to their Tunisian striker, Aoued Aouaichia. The score is three within 24 minutes, after which the game appears to be more of a training effort, with no pressure on either side, Hamm end up 4-0 winners.
From Mamer, it is only 12 km to Steinfort, the last village on the road before the Belgium border, (which makes the use of a German name, rather than a French one slightly surprising). Steinfort have also decided to go ‘Portuguese’, although not with much noticeable success. The club is now defined as Sporting Club de Steinfort, (which is really only a small change from last season’s Sporting Steinfort). By changing the name, which according to their magazine brings them within the family of Sporting Club de Portugal, they have gained a new badge (identical to the Lisbon club, except the name), and have switched from playing in red to green and white hoops. Unlike Hamm Benfica, who had a number of supporters wearing both their own colours, and those of their Portuguese namesake, there was no obvious connection among the fans. As it turned out, one member of each side’s starting XI for the match was Portuguese, while the home side could also both players from France, Belgium and Senegal, the visitors were, with that one exception, made up entirely of Luxembourg citizens.
The visitors here were Etzella Ettelbruck, who had finished as runners up last season. This allowed them to play their fifth European campaign, but they lost both legs of the tie against HJK Helsinki. In ten matches, Etzella have yet to win a single game in Europe, and have only three goals to their credit. The ground was tightly enclosed, with concrete paving only on the side where the entrance is. A shed like stand is set well back from the pitch, with a wide expanse of concrete between it and the barrier. This has a few rows of plastic seats, but these were widely ignored by the spectators, except for a group coming from Ettelbruck who considered this to be a good place to situate their crate of beer.
An unusual feature of the ground was that although the dressing room block formed a boundary to the ground, it has no entrances at all pitch side – the players have to leave the dressing rooms roadside, and enter the ground through the same gate as the spectators. Perhaps the walk from the dressing rooms is a feature of the division – at Mamer, the players changed in the sports hall facilities, and then walked along a path and across a small wooden bridge, which brooks the stream running between the hall and the playing field.
For the spectators, a small club room and bar is situated by the entrance and a traditional barbeque where German style ‘wurst’ was available by half time. The game was much more competitive than the earlier one, despite Etzella again being well placed in the league.
The game was far more competitive than the afternoon venture and the first half ended goalless, with Steinfort having the best chances. It was not until the hour mark that Etzella broke the deadlock with a goal from Alphonse Leweck. By this time the amount of beer being consumed was having an effect, and it became clear from chants that the visitors preferred the moniker Etzella, while the home support did stick to the town name, but not Steinfort as in the club name – they preferred Stegefort (three syllables, Steg-e-fort), which is the Luxembourgish pronunciation.
Steinfort level the scores from the penalty spot with just over ten minutes to play, and the game goes into extra time. Chief beneficiaries appears to be the bar, which is now doing a roaring trade, there being no ban here on drinking around the pitch and the visiting fans original supply being well finished. Along the side of the pitch, just inside the barrier fence, the area seems littered with empty bottles; even within a sliding tackle’s distance of the touchline.
Ten minutes into the extra period, Claudio da Luz put the visitors back into the lead, (despite the name, he is a Luxembourg international), and Charles Leweck added another soon afterwards to give Etzella a 3-1 final score. As it turned out, there was a run of away results, and seven of the final eight in the cup are from the top division. The only home win was in the all top division game, whereas the only survivor from the lower division is Sporting Mertzig, who won away at fellow Promotion D’Honneur club Muhlenbach, thanks only to a penalty shoot-out.