Stamping Grounds is a brilliant book of the hand of travel writer Charlie Connolley covering eveything you had always wanted to know about Liechtenstein…including a lot of football.
Charlie follows the Liechtenstein national football team through their defeat-strewn qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup. Drawn in a group with Israel, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria and mighty Spain, it was hard to see the principality’s part-time players scoring even one goal, never mind adding to its meagre international points total. So what motivates a nation of 30,000 people and eleven villages to keep plugging away despite the inevitability of defeat?
Travelling to all of Liechenstein’s qualifying matches, Charlie Connelly examines what motivates a team to take the field dressed proudly in the shirts of Liechtenstein despite the knowledge that they are, with notably few exceptions, in for a damn good hiding. Sampling the delights of Liechtenstein’s capital, Vaduz, such as the Postage Stamp Museum, the State Art Museum and, er, the Postage Stamp Museum again, Connelly provides an evocative and witty account of the land where every year on National Day the sovereign invites the entire population into his garden for a glass of wine.
For any football fan poisoned by the excess hype and crass commercialism of today’s game, this is the perfect antidote. Connolly’s account of Liechtenstein’s World Cup campaign is charming and funny without ever being patronising. He introduces us to a team that though small (manager Ralf Loose can select from only two hundred players in the entire country) is far from being a Mickey Mouse outfit. From the back room staff through to the players they display a dedication and a professionalism that would put many other countries to shame. In the space of just eight years the team have travelled from being whipping boys (losing 11-1 to Macedonia) to being a well organised side capable of holding a Spanish side containing the likes of Raul, Mendieta and Hiero to just two goals. Not bad for a side containing just six full time professionals. Connolly introduces us to the characters behind the story and in passing gives us an insight into life in this tiny country of which he becomes increasingly fond. We meet Patrick Hefti, the appropriately named centre half, who must organise his career and banking exams around his football; Henry Zech, the sweeper, who is forced to miss a match because his vineyard is at a crucial stage of the harvest; Ernst Hasler the journalist who fills in three pages of sport everyday for the local paper; and Mario Frick the star centre forward who goes on to claim a place with Seri A side Verona. Such is Connolly’s skill as a writer that the reader soon begins to empathise with these unlikely heroes as they battle to compete with the giants of football. This is not just a good football book; it’s also a fine travel book and like all good travel books, come the end you feel as though you’ve just passed a journey in excellent company. When you do turn the last page you’ll feel privileged to know something about this country and the wonderful people who represent it.
So not only a quirky and enjoyable funny travel guide and footballing odyssey but essential reading on the princedom of Liechtenstein…Connelly has produced a damned good read and could just as well be called the world’s leading authority on Liechtenstein.