Last night Liechtenstein came within a whisker of pulling off one of their greatest ever results, falling to a 97th minute goal against Scotland at Hampden. It’s always good to see plucky no-hopers upset the odds, especially when they grab an injury-time winner. Ha! See what I did there?
I couldn’t get to the match as I had a book event in Dublin, but I did have a piece in the programme. And, hey, whaddaya know, here it is.

Eight years ago tomorrow a knot of blue-shirted players stood over a football among lengthening shadows at the end of a hot alpine day at the beautifully situated Rheinpark Stadion in Vaduz debating what to do at a free-kick some twenty-five yards from goal. Liechtenstein were coming to the end of their opening Euro 2004 qualifying tie against Macedonia, a game that was following a familiar pattern. Despite fighting hard and playing well Liechtenstein were a goal down: Macedonia had scored early and settled back to see out the rest of the game with minimal exertion. It was three weeks shy of four years since Liechtenstein had last scored a competitive goal and the visitors justifiably felt their work in Vaduz was done.
By the third minute of injury time many in the crowd of 1,500 were beginning to make their way to the exits when Martin Stocklasa was fouled outside the area, convening the gathering of players over the ball discussing their options.
Shielding my eyes from the low sun I saw that every Macedonian player had placed himself between the ball and the goal as the Liechtensteiners debated their plan of attack. When you spend most games stoutly defending your own eighteen yard line clever free-kick routines tend to be low on the list of training priorities. What was to be done?
The whistle blew and twenty-one year old Michael Stocklasa, brother of Martin, puffed out his cheeks, took three steps and thundered in a low, scudding shot that barely left the turf. The ball disappeared into a thicket of legs, flashed past the motionless Macedonian goalkeeper and billowed the bottom right hand corner of the net.
There was a brief silence then the little stadium erupted in joy. I jumped higher out of my seat than should have been humanly possible, while on the pitch Stocklasa’s blond head disappeared under a pile of jubilant blue-shirted players. The roar of delight echoed around the Rhine valley, its reverberations probably still startling cows even today.
The final whistle went as soon as the Macedonians rolled the ball off the centre-spot, and pandemonium broke out. The team punched the air and ran to each other in delight. Strung along the pitch hand in hand, the players saluted the crowd again and again, raw exhilaration subduing fatigue.
Leaping around like an idiot at a goal for a nation with whom I have no blood ties might seem a little irrational; some might say needy, especially when that goal is a last gasp equaliser against Macedonia.
But then I had been waiting two long years for that moment.
I had followed this remarkable group of footballers from a remarkable country through their entire qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup for a book I was writing and fallen irrevocably for a team for whom it really was the taking part that counted.
When you consider that the late equaliser against Macedonia was the team’s first goal in a competitive match for four years, only the seventh in their history and earned them only their sixth qualifying point ever you might understand why a Liechtenstein supporter, even one by proxy like myself, might have gone happily demented in the evening sunshine eight years ago. In two years I’d never seen them score a goal.
When you follow Liechtenstein football you soon learn that there really are more important things than winning. A country of just 34,000 souls that covers such a small area that you could fit it comfortably into Luxembourg sixteen times is never going to win the European Championships. It’s never going to qualify for the European Championships either. So the fact that a nation with a population roughly the size of Falkirk’s can compete and hold its own at the highest level is part of what keeps football magical for me.
I once saw Liechtenstein ‘only’ lose 0-2 to Spain: at the final whistle you’d have thought the Principality had won the World Cup itself. Back then the team only had a couple of professionals: the captain at the time was a winemaker who sometimes missed World Cup matches if the grapes were ripe for picking. There were bankers in the side, a schoolteacher, the requisite postmen, and when you got to know them as I did you could truly understand the nature of national pride. Winning didn’t matter so much, as long as you played to the best of your ability and could make your tiny country proud. That night against Raul, Mendieta, Casillas and the rest, Liechtenstein’s footballers certainly did that.
Since that goal went in against Macedonia there have been greater moments in Liechtenstein football: coming back from 0-2 down to draw 2-2 with Portugal in a 2006 World Cup qualifier easily serves as the greatest day in Liechtenstein football history, and there have been competitive wins against Iceland, Luxembourg (twice) and Latvia to add to their only previous success against Azerbaijan in 1998.
But statistics aren’t as important when your country is only sixteen miles long and four miles wide (and two thirds of that is mountains). On paper a 1-1 draw with Macedonia looks pretty forgettable. For those of us who were there however, who had an emotional investment in that occasion whether as a player, coach, official or supporter, when Michael Stocklasa’s shot nearly burst the net among the long evening shadows it was about more, much more than a last-ditch point against a middling football nation.
Aside from the romance Liechtenstein are a decent, well-organised football team. Many of the players out there this evening have played together for a dozen years: an experienced, mature unit who’ve competed among the best in Europe for more than a decade. They are far from pushovers. So, if in injury-time tonight you see Michael Stocklasa lining up a free-kick, don’t take anything for granted.

Charlie Connelly’s Stamping Grounds: Liechtenstein’s Quest For The World Cup is published by Little, Brown.

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