Wednesday 14th April 2022 ko 20:00
Liechtensteinster Cup Semi-Final
FC BALZERS 1 (Stolz 82)
FC VADUZ 3 (Djokic 9 Di Gusto 92 Ulrich 111)
Att c300 at Sportenlage Rheinpark
Entry 10CHF (€9.67/ £8.29)
We’d spent a happy few days exploring Salzburg but the second part of Robyn and I’s honeymoon involved a 3 hour drive west to the Tirolean Alps and the little village of Höfen near to the pretty town of Reutte. I’d hired a car for a week, and ended up travelling 3 stops by train, and from Austria to Germany to collect it. That was a handy move, a fair percentage of Austrian autobahns require a vignette to use them so crossing back into Austria to collect Robyn meant easy access to a filling station just over the border to pay the €9.60 for a sticker for 10 days’ use. It also meant I’d be driving a car with a German numberplate, and since all Covid checks seemed to be made by German border guards, we weren’t stopped for the entirety of our stay!
The only real issue was that I hadn’t driven a left-hand drive car for 9 years, and that was a one day hire to allow a trip to watch CF Cadiz from a base in Seville! It’s fair to say I was out of practice, and a 3 hour drive along a mixture of German autobahns and Austrian mountain passes was a real education- and I’d better not say crash course!
Reutte, apart from being where Werner von Braun surrendered to Allied troops in 1945 to go on and mastermind the entire Apollo moon landings was a handy base for us. We were still close to the German border so soon found out that the Aldis we see in the UK are in fact Aldi Süd in Germany (due to a dispute between the Albrecht brothers who founded the chain) south of Essen, with Aldi Nord to the north. In Austria and Slovenia the brand is called Hofer for reasons unfathomable!
We had no end of footballing options for the Wednesday. SV Reutte in the Austrian Regionaliga were at home for an easy tick, but I fancied trying for a game in a new country. Italy was around 130 km to the south, but I could see no game there. But roughly the same distance to the west was Liechtenstein……
The tiny Principality of Liechtenstein is located east of the River Rhine between Austria and Switzerland. It is the 4th smallest country in Europe, is only 62 square miles in size, is the smallest country to border two other countries, and is one of only two countries in the world to be doubly landlocked, the other being Uzbekistan. It has the curious distinction of having more limited companies under it’s jurisdiction than people living there. The country has a monetary union with Switzerland so the Swiss Franc is used here.
In footballing terms Liechtenstein has only 7 clubs, and since there is no Liechtensteiner League, all teams play as guest clubs in the Swiss League and pay a fee for the privilege. By far the biggest club is FC Vaduz in the capital who play in the second tier Challenge League; the other six play in the semi-professional and amateur leagues. Liechtenstein’s clubs cannot represent Switzerland in European competitions and with no league there is only one route for them to play in UEFA’s tournaments- and that’s via the Liechtensteiner Cup
Now the idea of watching the rather unusual spectacle of two Liechtensteiner clubs play each other in a Liechtensteiner competition did appeal to me, and before you think it more than 7 teams do enter. The reserves and third elevens do play too so this season saw 17 entries. There have been examples of a second team playing the firsts, such as USV Eschen/Mauren playing USV Eschen/Mauren II in 2009-10 and the lesser side progressing when the firsts have been knocked out such as 2005 when FC Triesenberg were knocked out, but FC Triesenberg II progressed. Unsurprisingly FC Vaduz do win the cup a lot, 48 times to be exact, and the last time another team won it was USV Eschen/Mauren in 2012.
The winners qualify for the second qualifying round of the UEFA Conference League which does give the victor a rather circuitous route to the Champions League, at least in theory. The Liechtensteiner representative would need to win the Conference League, which would then qualify them for the next season’s Europa League when if they won that would then put them in the group stage of the next season’s Champions League!
Robyn and I were extremely pleased that our friend Andreas from the Stuttgart area decided to join us. For one thing he’s a wonderful human being, and for another having a polyglot around in all these countries was a godsend! He also managed to change the language to English on our hire car’s satnav which was much appreciated! We met in Feldkirch on the Austrian side of Liechtenstein’s northern border. He’d booked himself into a hotel there as prices are cheaper on the Austrian side, that currency union does make Liechtenstein as expensive as Switzerland!
We enjoyed a meal together, and caught up, it had been over 5 years since we’d watched a game together and we do tend to watch football in some fairly unusual places, such as at the ground with hydraulic floodlights in Norway and outside a prison in Luxembourg! He also made up our mind as to which semi-final we’d watch, he’d already seen a game at FC Ruggell, on the northern tip of the country, even if I was completely in agreement, but for reasons I’ll explain later. He also had a Swiss Vignette, and since they only sell a 1-year version for 40 CHF, around £33 I was unwilling to pay for what would add up to around a 30 minute drive on the motorway on the Swiss side of the Rhein that was far quicker than driving through the middle of Liechtenstein.
The journey to Balzers meant driving from one end of Liechtenstein to the southern-most tip. We crossed from Austria into Liechtenstein and then into Switzerland in less than 10 minutes passing within sight of FC Ruggell’s ground (they lost 1-0 to USV Eschen/Mauren) then on to the autobahn passing FC Vaduz’s Rheinpark Stadium on the other side the Rhein. It was odd seeing virtually all of a country’s western border in one short drive! We then crossed back over the Rhine, back into Liechtenstein and the Sportplaz Rheinau is vitually the first facility you see once you’ve crossed over.
Once there and in the ground, we were in the unusual position of having our backs to the Rhine, then beyond that the Swiss canton of St Gallen, to our right less than 3 km away the Swiss canton of Grisons, the only canton where Romansh is an official language, and once beyond the mountains behind the clubhouse which provide a stupendous backdrop, you’d be back in Austria.
FC Balzers were rock bottom of the 4th tier 1. Liga Classic Group 3, so and with opponents FC Vaduz, being both full-time professional and in the second tier Challenge League I wasn’t expecting a particularly competitive game. But other than ticking off ground number 2,400 in country number 27 I did have compelling reason to be there, and that was Vaduz goalkeeper Benji Büchel.
I’m an Oxford United fan, and Benji was part of our League 2 promotion team in 2016 and despite only making a total of 23 appearances he did make quite an impression. He made his debut at home to swindon town and endeared himself to the faithful by being on the winning team! He was only the second Liechtensteiner to play in England, and when Oxford made the final of the Football League Trophy he became the first and so far the only Liechtensteiner to play at Wembley- the Liechtenstein national team have only played in England once, and that was at Old Trafford. He was extremely unfortunate to be released at the end of the 2016-17 season. Since then he’s played in Switzerland, and since 2018 for Vaduz. The look on his face when I introduced myself was priceless!!
I don’t think many people there expected extra time, even if it was a classic case of dominant side failing to take full advantage of greater possession and chances. Few had my incentive, a 2 hour drive back to Höfen in a car and on the side of the road I wasn’t used to in the dark and on mountain roads! Many cheered Balzers’ equaliser I winced, Robyn commiserated, and I did ponder seeing if Andreas’ hotel back in Feldkirch had a room going spare? But those were my travails and typically once extra time had been confirmed and had started Vaduz got two quick goals to finally put the tie to bed.
We left with mixed feelings, firstly all credit to Balzers for a side in the kind of relegation trouble that they are, made their more illustrious opponents work hard for their win. It was just if there was one game I really didn’t want to go to extra time it was this one! Vaduz went on to win the cup, beating Eschen/Mauren 3-1 in the final, so Benji Büchel will join former Oxford United teammates John Lundstram and Kemar Roofe (both Rangers) who will play European football next season.
We crossed back to Switzerland, then briefly into Liechtenstein again and then for our seventh border crossing of the day back into Austria and Feldkirch. It was 11.30 and I decided to attack the route home. Andreas had found me a route using mostly motorways (making good use of that vignette) so I attacked it. It all worked fine until we turned off the autobahn at Stuben to head north via Zürs. We reached the ski resort of Lech with only 50 km left when we found the pass through to Warth was closed. In England a closed road means you go 10 minutes out of your way, but in the Tirol that means you need to travel back the way you came and go either round or through the next mountain along. We ended up going back to the motorway, going 100 km out of our way and eventually reached home at 2.30am, around 2 hours later than we’d hoped for and utterly exhausted.
But even if we’d have known what adventures awaited us when we set out that morning do you think we’d have settled for that easy game at Reutte? Of course not, Robyn and I aren’t your normal couple, are we? Even if more than one occasion on that trip home I did have to remind myself we were on our honeymoon!