Writer Mat Guy, the author of Another Bloody Saturday: A Journey to the Heart and Soul of Football, explores football culture in his upcoming new book, Minnows United: Adventures at the Fringes of the Beautiful Game. Follow him on Twitter here for the latest on the project.
There is a centuries-old saying that ‘in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’. And in the valley nestled beneath the Swiss Alps that constitutes the entirety of Liechtenstein, FC Vaduz are most definitely kings of football.
Liechtenstein Cup winners 19 times out of the last 20, FC Vaduz live the paradox of being the biggest and most successful team – in the sixth smallest country in the world!
Hailing from the capital of the same name, population 5,000, Vaduz dominate domestic football in this minnow state that sits sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria – however, they have never been national champions. The reason why? There is no football league in Liechtenstein.
The only country in Europe without their own league, the seven teams that dot this tiny country’s landscape all play within the Swiss football pyramid; though of them, two play in the fourth tier, one in the sixth, and three turn out in the seventh tier. With FC Vaduz having spent most of its life hovering between divisions two and three, and indeed managing three seasons in the Swiss top flight Super League, the last of which came last season, there can be no doubt of their title as giants of a minnow country.
But despite that tag, they can never compete even in the earliest stages of the Champions League, being unable to represent Switzerland if the highly unlikely happened, and Vaduz won the Super League.
No, the first qualifying round of the Europa League are their aspirations every season, when they set off on another cup campaign against their lowly compatriots and their reserve teams that help to make up the rest of the draw.
But in Europe, FC Vaduz have shown that, even at such humble beginnings, they can play, and they do matter. From an early battering on their first outing in Europe in 1992 (losing 12-1 on aggregate to Chornomorets Odessa of Ukraine) they have beaten teams from Latvia, San Marino, and Hungary, as well as beating FC Basel 2-1 in a first leg before losing on away goals.
Representing your country, no matter at what level, is an honour – and it was clear to see on an unseasonably cold June night in Rhyl, North Wales, where Vaduz’s latest European adventure had taken them to play Bala Town of the Welsh Premier League.
The handful of ultras that had made the long trip sang with a vigour that only a bursting pride can produce, and the players of both sides played with a heightened sense that things like this just don’t happen every week, and need to be honoured, savoured, in equal measure.
A 2-1 victory for the visitors was followed up by a win in Vaduz to set up a second qualifying round with Odd Grenland of Norway – and so the European adventure continues for the biggest team in the tiniest of countries, at least for another week or so.
These results may well be insignificant in the greater sporting scheme of things, and made precious few newspapers outside of North Wales and Liechtenstein. But try telling that to the Vaduz Ultras in Rhyl, or to the players that celebrated victory with them with high fives and hugs.
Football, the passion and drama, the sense of belonging and identity it produces – it is important, wherever it is found. And wherever it is found, it is pure magic.