Liechtenstein is my inspiration. Reading about this defiantly independent slice of the Alps pushed my thoughts towards 55 Football Nations. This was its turn. It remains a peculiarity. FC Vaduz, the leading team, pay to play in the second tier Challenge League in Switzerland. I stretched the top flight definition of 55 Football Nations to include Liechtenstein. Vaduz were playing Schaffhausen, a fixture lodged in my schedule for many months.
I walked along the Rhine, the border between Liechtenstein and Switzerland. It was a dead winter day. The grey river and cloud-fringed mountains looked unappealing. The Rheinpark stadium loomed. I entered the warming north stand restaurant, bought a beer and looked for a man dubbed the greatest football journalist in the world.
Ernst Hasler has worked for Vaterland, the Liechtenstein newspaper, for over three decades. I had an old photograph. I was nervous not to miss my opportunity. Was that it him by the window? A man clearly on his own, talking to a middle-aged couple, gulping tea like a true hack. “Are you Ernst?” I asked. “No, I’m the driver for Schaffhausen” he replied.
I chatted to Tomas, a local Vaduz fan. He knew Ernst and pointed him out when he bustled into the restaurant with a team sheet and a laptop. He still looked like a Physics teacher, whitened hair and moustache. He was busy trying to work out the FC Vaduz formation for the minute-by-minute updates on the Vaterland website. I liked this, a man looking forward.
It is hard to impress someone who has been to every World Cup final since 1982 and every European Championship final since 1988. But you can notice things. Vaduz qualify for Europe nearly every season by winning the Liechtenstein Football Cup. I remarked that their last 12 European fixtures had been against teams from 12 different countries: Norway and Wales this season, Denmark, Macedonia, Switzerland, Estonia, San Marino, Poland, Gibraltar, Georgia, Israel and Serbia since 2011-12. “That’s very special” said Ernst. “I didn’t notice that”.
Vaduz have won 19 of the last 20 Cup finals. The last four have been conclusive: 6-0, 5-0, 11-0 and 5-1. But in 2012 Vaduz lost to fourth tier USV Eschen/Mauren on penalties after being two goals and a man up. “It was a big shock” said Ernst. USV’s lone European tie against Icelandic powerhouse FH was a respectable 3-1 aggregate defeat.
Ernst had missed some of the European away matches. He is almost solely responsible for writing the annual Liechtenstein football special for Vaterland every summer. The 2017 edition is an impressive booklet for such a small country. The gleaming body of Yanik Frick, son of the legendary Mario, adorns the cover. A map demonstrates how the UEFA Cup and now Europa League have given Vaduz – and for one season USV – the opportunity to play in many of the 55 football nations.
“Europe is positive for Vaduz but our trainers manage it differently” said Ernst. “Some were focussed on those matches and others only take it as preparation. And when you only take it as preparation you don’t win matches.” He spoke with care. He was frustrated when he couldn’t find the word he needed in English. He routinely used ‘we’ to refer to Vaduz and Liechtenstein. He was proud.
Ernst was greeted like a hero when he returned to the restaurant after Vaduz had secured a 2-0 win. The Dutch bar girl brought him a cup of tea and a lamb skewer. The Vaduz players, who dined on a communal table, found time for Ernst. He knew everyone. ‘When are you leaving?” asked Ernst. I said that I had a late flight from Zurich the next day. “Come around my house, I have some guests over.” I didn’t have any dinner plans in Vaduz.
We drove up the snowy mountains to Triesenberg, a pretty antidote to the hard angles of Vaduz, to Ernst’s house. A range of family members were clustered around a wide wooden table. “They’re here for some special occasion” muttered Ernst. It took me a few seconds. “What’s the occasion?” I asked Nicole, Ernst’s niece. “It’s Ernst’s birthday” she said. There was laughter and local wine, cake and football chat. Ernst is now 63. He still has many more years of reporting on FC Vaduz and Liechtenstein.