If International football is a great banquet, then Liechtenstein’s national team, and I mean no offence, are a very dirty man dressed in rags with a bindle on the end of a stick, desperately pleading for scraps from the table. Every now and then, the very fat and healthy lads at the top table such as Italy or Switzerland will neglect a bit of food on their plates and hungry old Liechtenstein will swoop in hungrily to gobble it up.
On this occasion, Croatia is too busy filling up on its delicious plate of Perisic and Kovacic to notice a small scrap that’s going to waste. A small scrap named Stjepan Kukurozovic.
I’d love to slide Kukurozovic onto Liechtenstein’s great national plate and start chowing down, but unfortunately I’ve already named the squad for our first matches of the European International League against Montenegro and Gibraltar. He’s certainly one to have a look at for my next squad though.
No, for my first competitive International matches I’ll be sticking with players that I know, but I will be dropping Project: Liechtensteiner in favour of the newly constructed and imaginatively named Project: Liechtensteiner Mk II. Mk II is based on a couple of things: Firstly, simplifying our game. With the original Project: Liechtensteiner I expected players to stick to their all-out defensive shape, be more disciplined, stand off, close down less, go long, exploit the flanks, etc etc etc. It was far too complicated and we need to get back to basics.
Secondly, balance. As I mentioned, the previous system was defensive. Extremely defensive. Almost certainly too defensive. The thing is that even when you’re the underdog and expected to be roundly thrashed, if you turn up with the game plan of just keeping the opposition out you’ll spend the whole match under siege and you’ll nearly always concede anyway from one of your opposition’s 30,000 shots. You need balance. You need to be able to step out and attack, even if you don’t expect to score. You need to put that doubt in the opposition’s mind, if only to make that full back or midfielder think “Maybe I shouldn’t go forwards for this attack, Liechtenstein might counter us”. You need to prevent the opposition from camping in your half and stay in the game and we haven’t been doing either.
Project: Liechtensteiner Mk II will be a standard, flexible 4-1-2-3. We’ll play narrow, stick to our positions, be more disciplined and stay on our feet, all in the name of staying more solid at the back. But that’s it. That’s all of it. Everything about it screams “Safe”, but we aren’t parking any buses. We’ll stay responsible at the back, we’ll make ourselves difficult to beat, but we’ll also play some bloody football.
Personnel-wise for our first competitive match against Montenegro I only make 1 change from the Wales match: I was unable to call up right winger Pascal Schürpf because he’s injured, so Simon Kühne starts in his place. The full lineup is Benji Büchel in net, Lucas Eberle, Simone Grippo, Daniel Kaufmann and Roman Spirig in defence, Marcel Büchel playmaking from a deep midfield position, Sandro Wieser and Vinzenz Flatz as the midfield duo, Simon Kühne and Maximilian Göppel on the wings and Yanik Frick up front. Thinking about it, Göppel’s had a weird time with me as his national boss, starting at centre back in my first match before moving to left back, then up to left midfield and now left wing.
I shudder just a little bit watching the Montenegro starting XI get into position on the pitch for kick off. Stevan Jovetić and Stefan Savić both start for the visitors, who are both somewhat Manchester City rejects, but have gone on to do very, very well for themselves.
We keep things tight for half an hour despite Montenegro’s inevitable dominance, which I’m delighted with considering our early struggles with the original Project: Liechtensteiner, but then Göppel picks up a knock on his thigh. It’s worrying, but he seems alright so I leave him on.
A few minutes before half time, Göppel is indeed still doing alright. He receives the ball on the left and dribbles into the Montenegro half before chipping it behind Savić and into the path of Yanik Frick. Frick breezes past another defender and pokes the ball goal-wards – Finding the far bottom corner.
We’re winning! For the first time in 6 matches we’re actually winning! I can’t restrain myself from leaping into the air and laughing maniacally. My instinct once I calm down is to make a change. Bring a defender on or drop the defensive line back. Anything! I resist though. As much as I want to protect this lead, there’s no sense in fixing what’s not broken and we’re doing a good job at keeping the Montenegrins at bay.
If you put Paul Engemann’s “Push it to the limit” on a loop behind the second half it could be a training montage in a film about taking potshots at Benji’s goal, but we remain unscathed and we’re suddenly 15 minutes away from victory. Montenegro continue to push and Haziosmanovic slips the ball through for Jovetic in torturous slow motion. My stomach churns as I watch the striker leave Eberle for dead and shoot first time from a narrow angle, but the ball bounces back to him off the post. Jovetic sets himself to pull the trigger on the rebound, but with perfect timing Simpone Grippo lunges in to expertly win the ball and knock it away. “WELL IN, SIMONE! BLOODY WELL IN!” I boom, clapping my hands together vigorously.
With 10 minutes to go, we go defensive. Montenegro huff and they puff, but house Liechtensteiner doesn’t even wobble. Liechtenstein win 1-0.
As the final whistle blows I sprint onto the pitch towards the huddle of Liechtensteiner players, while the fans cheer and sing behind us. I don’t think I’ve been this happy since Angrense won the Championship and secured an unbeaten season, which seems like a very long time ago. That’s the thing with International football; It’s not like the daily soap opera of club football. It’s more like a 10-episode-per-year TV show, designed to pack all of the emotion, into a short space of time. And my God, does it do just that.
Maximilian Göppel deserves a lot of credit for powering through to set up the winning goal, but sadly his thigh strain’s going to rule him out of the Gibraltar match. It’s perfect timing actually, because now I get to call up recently eligible Stjepan “Kuku” Kukuruzovic to make his International debut.
Once we get Kuku on a plane and onto the training pitch, we realise that he looks like a good player. He’s certainly been one of Vaduz’s (Surprise surprise, thanks Vaduz) best players since joining in 2015. Kuku lacks determination, which I have to say still irks me, but other than that he’s solid. Decent physically, good mentally and technically and he’s especially good on long shots, passing, technique and ability to pick out a pass. He’s primarily a playmaker, which suits those strengths down to the ground.
This is the life, I think to myself. An away trip to the tiny nation of Gibraltar, South of Spain. It’s a lovely day and the sun’s belting down, so in true English style I retreat to my hotel room and stick the air con on full blast until I need to go down for the match. For the match itself I’ll be making a couple of changes: Kuku starts in place of Flatz as an advanced playmaker in the centre of midfield and Guillaume Khous, the versatile forward who’s not played since my first match in charge against the Faroe Islands, replaces the injured Göppel as an inside forward on the left wing. Even though Gibraltar are the underdogs, we’ll start with the same cautious system as we’re still the away side and we’re not so good that we can turn up playing gung-ho football and expect to sweep Gibraltar aside. The one tweak I’ll make is that I want us to exploit the middle of the pitch, as our central midfield triangle of Büchel, Wieser and Kuku is by far our highest quality area and I’ll be looking for them to run the show.
After 20 minutes we’re dominating, but Gibraltar are defending for their lives. We go more direct to try to utilise Frick’s physical presence more and speed up our final third play. We get to half time still level though, so we come out for the second half and attack, but still Gibraltar hold on.
It’s not until 5 minutes from time that anyone gets a real chance, after Negele and Hadzipasic have come on to replace Wieser and Frick. After another period of possession for Liechtenstein, Kühne crosses low from the right towards the far post, and Guillaume Khous arrives on the edge of the 6 yard box to steer the ball into the net. Again, I’m delirious, again we celebrate and again we shut up shop and see the game out. My first 2 competitive matches as Liechtensteiner boss have ended 1-0 and we’re in dreamland – At the top of Division D Group 2 of the European International League.
As Liechtenstein boss I’ll take any little victories I can get, and if Lucas Eberle’s 2 Player of the Match awards in a year is a new Liechtensteiner record, then let’s party like it’s the 12th of July 1806.
And the best thing about this International break is welcoming a talented new 31 year old into the fold. After making his debut, Kuku is officially Liechtensteiner. He’s delighted, even thanking me afterwards in an online interview.
I don’t ask for a lot in life you know. Clothes on my back, a roof over my head and a hot meal at night. And it’d be nice if I didn’t get home now and then to find that my cats had quite literally pissed on my pillow. You might call those the bare essentials and anything else a bonus. I have an image in my head of me as an old man where I sit my half-robot-faced grandson Franjo Jr Jr down and tell him all about times like these. “Once upon a time, Franjuju”, I’ll say, “I took a bunch of amateur misfits from a small Central European country and I lead them into battle. And on that day my boy, we bloody well won.”