Luxembourg's Gerson Rodrigues, center, heads the ball during the Euro...

Luxembourg's Gerson Rodrigues, center, heads the ball during the Euro 2024 group J qualifying soccer match between Luxembourg and Liechtenstein at the Stade De Luxembourg in Luxembourg, on June 17, 2023. To soccer fans of a certain age, the idea of Luxembourg getting this close to qualifying for a European Championship is just incredible. Win two playoff games in five days, at Georgia on Thursday then hosting either Greece or Kazakhstan on Tuesday, and Luxembourg will be the unlikely Cinderella story at Euro 2024 in June. Credit: AP/Fred Sierakowski

GENEVA — To soccer fans of a certain age, the idea of Luxembourg being this close to qualifying for a European Championship is incredible after decades of being mostly overmatched.

If Luxembourg wins two playoff games in five days — at Georgia on Thursday and then hosting either Greece or Kazakhstan on Tuesday — it will then be the unlikely Cinderella at Euro 2024 in June.

The reward for the winner of the knockout bracket of single-leg games will be landing in a Euro 2024 group in Germany against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, Turkey and the Czech Republic.

Even the man whose devoted work to the Luxembourg cause since 1968 now includes 20 years as the soccer federation president is astonished at where the team from the grand duchy stands today.

“Sometimes it’s very difficult to believe,” said Paul Philipp, whose 14 years playing for the Red Lions then 16 years as coach was often spent as Europe’s lowest-ranked national team.

“That is already for us a big success that we have the possibility to discuss about the chance of Luxembourg to qualify for Euro 2024,” Philipp told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview.

Times were hard for Luxembourg in the 1970s and ’80s when the European scene had fewer national teams and strength in depth. That was before the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke up and before current minnows like San Marino, Andorra and Gibraltar obtained membership of FIFA and UEFA.

Luxembourg's coach Luc Holtz prior to the Euro 2024 group...

Luxembourg's coach Luc Holtz prior to the Euro 2024 group J qualifying soccer match between Luxembourg and Liechtenstein at the Stade De Luxembourg in Luxembourg, on June 17, 2023. To soccer fans of a certain age, the idea of Luxembourg getting this close to qualifying for a European Championship is just incredible. Win two playoff games in five days, at Georgia on Thursday then hosting either Greece or Kazakhstan on Tuesday, and Luxembourg will be the unlikely Cinderella story at Euro 2024 in June. Credit: AP/Fred Sierakowski

There was a five-game spell for Luxembourg in 1982-83 of conceding 31 goals including a 9-0 rout by England at Wembley that was worse than the 5-0 beating in 1977 that Philipp played in.

Now aged 73, Philipp recalls with fondness that awe-struck visit to the storied stadium he calls “a cathedral.”

“Nobody showed us how small we were, and we were really small,” he said, recalling the same respect shown to the underdog visitors then as 40 years later by France and its coach Didier Deschamps after a 0-0 draw in Toulouse.

Luxembourg’s improvement has been steady and its five games won in a Euro 2024 qualifying group last year was more than in the previous six Euros qualifying programs combined.

Slovakia's Peter Pekarik, left, fights for the ball with Luxembourg's...

Slovakia's Peter Pekarik, left, fights for the ball with Luxembourg's Christopher Martins, center, during the Euro 2024 group J qualifying soccer match between Luxembourg and Slovakia at the Stade de Luxembourg in Luxembourg, on Oct. 16, 2023. To soccer fans of a certain age, the idea of Luxembourg getting this close to qualifying for a European Championship is just incredible. Win two playoff games in five days, at Georgia on Thursday then hosting either Greece or Kazakhstan on Tuesday, and Luxembourg will be the unlikely Cinderella story at Euro 2024 in June. Credit: AP/Frederic Sierakowski

The reasons are clear to Philipp. A well-planned youth development program created in 2000 and generations of migration — especially from Portugal and the former Yugoslavia — into the tiny country whose population is now about 660,000.

“They all were born here and they all come to football,” he said, acknowledging Luxembourg soccer had to “take the maximum out of that chance.”

The current squad includes national-team record scorer Gerson Rodrigues, who has family ties to Portugal and midfielder Christopher Martins who could have represented Cape Verde. Defender Enes Mahmutović was born in Kosovo and forward Danel Sinani in Serbia.

One that took a different path was Miralem Pjanić, the former Roma and Juventus midfielder, who played for Luxembourg youth teams before choosing the country of his birth, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“That is the risk that exists but it really is a minority,” said Philipp, who oversees a development program that encourages young players eventually to find clubs abroad to improve, as he did once his own school education was complete.

“At that moment,” he told the AP, recalling the late-1960s, “we did not have so much immigration as this. And we had very few national-team players that played abroad.”

Traveling to Georgia, where a 50,000-plus crowd awaits the team in Tbilisi on Thursday, has fewer fears.

This Luxembourg generation is more used to winning games thanks in part to UEFA creating the Nations League that matches teams with opponents at a similar level. Philipp believes the “big, big pressure” is on the home team.

“All the people in Georgia expect that they beat Luxembourg — I understand that,” he said. “Whoever we could play in the second game (next Tuesday), the most difficult game is the first game.”

“That will be very, very special for all of us.”

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