Monday 13 January 2020

Getting Aktiv In Liechtenstein: The Curious Tale Of The Seven Clubs Who Kind Of Play Football In Two Separate Countries

FC Vaduz have qualified for the UEFA Europa League seven seasons running, not bad for a team who have spent four of those seven seasons playing second tier football. Despite playing league football in Switzerland, Vaduz actually hail from the principality of Liechtenstein and regularly qualify for Europe's secondary club competition thanks to winning Liechtenstein's domestic cup almost every year. What follows is the story of a rather strange arrangement.

Set amongst the snowy peaks of the Alps, the small principality of Liechtenstein has only seven football clubs within its borders so it's hardly surprising that they are the only UEFA member that don't have their own football league. The seven clubs of Liechtenstein evidently needing a proper league structure have all ended up playing across the border in the leagues of Switzerland. Four editions of a Liechtenstein Football Championship took place within the Swiss league system before World War II but post-war it was never revived and teams have since always played in the Swiss League system proper with the previous championship being replaced by a cup competition played alongside the Swiss league games. 

Clubs from Liechtenstein are given a special status whereby they are not fully Swiss, they are considered what are known as 'guest clubs'. Although they participate in the Swiss League system, clubs from the principality do not enter the Swiss Cup instead playing in their own cup competition through which they have been able to qualify for Europe since 1992. Winning the Aktiv-Cup, as it is known, earns teams place in the following seasons Europa League and this is because Liechtenstein's special status gives them a UEFA country coefficient and their own European spots separate to those of Switzerland. This does mean, however, that if a team from Liechtenstein were to ever win the Swiss Super League they would be denied one of Switzerland's Champions League spots. As their only route to Europe is a Europa League place through winning the Aktiv-Cup, as it stands, clubs from Liechtenstein can never qualify for the Champions League, not even for the earliest of the early qualifying rounds.

With such few teams in the tiny landlocked principality, Liechtenstein's Aktiv-Cup is hardly a large affair, but one interesting note is the inclusion of reserve sides. With most of the country's clubs fielding second and in some cases even third teams in the competition, it certainly increases the numbers. It more than doubled this year's participation to 15, for example. This is uncommon in many countries and in Liechtenstein's has lead to some unusual scenarios. In 2006-07, for example, FC Triesenberg saw their second team progress further in the competition than their first team whilst in 2009-10 USV Eschen/Mauren's first team actually faced their second string in the semi finals of the competition. Their first team won 6-2.

After that semi final victory in 2010, Eschen/Mauren lost to FC Vaduz in the final, teams in Liechtenstein are used to losing to Vaduz. FC Vaduz have won the cup a record 47 times and that actually stands as a world record. No team has won a domestic cup competition as many times as they have. They would have been aiming for a 23rd successive title this season if it were not for a penalty shoot-out defeat to Eschen/Mauren in the 2012 final. Eschen/Mauren have five cup final victories to their name ahead of FC Schaan with 3 but behind FC Triesen with 8 and FC Balzers on 11. Those 11 for Balzers put them a not so close second to Vaduz in terms of wins. Winning the cup for the next 36 seasons straight, however, would see them draw level with Vaduz, no biggie then.

Albeit a small time club themselves, as you can see Vaduz are by far the strongest of Liechtenstein's seven sides. They are also the only club from the principality to have played in the Swiss Super League. Vaduz were promoted to the Swiss top flight for the first time in 2008 and after an immediate relegation did not return until 2014 where they lasted for 3 seasons. Vaduz have remained in the second tier Challenge League in the years since. The rest of Liechtenstein's clubs play in the amateur or semi-professional regional leagues with Balzers and Eschen/Mauren who both play in the fourth tier currently the highest ranked of these. 

Despite gaining a place in Europe virtually every year Vaduz have had little success on the continental stage. The club have never before reached the group stages of Europa League always failing to progress through the qualifying rounds of which they currently need to navigate through four (out of five). Vaduz did, however, defeat Swiss giants FC Basel 2-1 at home in the second qualifying round in 2006, possibly their most famous European night to date. Sadly though they lost the tie on the away goals rule after a 1-0 second leg defeat. Going back further and before the Europa League and it's group stages Vaduz in 1996 did actually reach the first round of the old UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, albeit at that time only being required to navigate their way through one sole qualifying round to reach it. Vaduz were drawn against the famous name that is Paris Saint Germain in round one and sadly for them they lost 7-0 aggregate to the French side. 

As for other clubs from the principality playing in Europe, Balzers managed the same feat as Vaduz in the Cup Winners' Cup some three years before them when they lost 11-1 on aggregate to CSKA Sofia in a first round tie. Reaching the first round had seen Balzers become the first ever side from Liechtenstein to win a match in Europe. Their 3-1 home win over KS Albpetrol Patos of Albania is, however, to date the only time a club other than Vaduz has won a European match whilst representing the principality. When Eschen/Mauren entered the Europa League after winning the Aktiv-Cup in 2012 they lost to Icelandic side Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar in the first qualifying round with 2-1 and 1-0 losses. Schaan in 1994-95 are the only other club from Liechtenstein to have played in Europe.

This season Vaduz saw their Europa League campaign end in the third qualifying round with a 6-0 aggregate defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt. They currently sit mid table in the Swiss Challenge League but have reached the semi finals of Aktiv-Cup which they will no doubt be expected to win again. The story of domestic football in Liechtenstein is a rather curious one, but for those used to it, results on the pitch this season suggest it may be a case of same old story once again with you know who dominating...

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