To nobody’s surprise, Liechtenstein failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Ranked No. 187 in the world by FIFA, sandwiched between Brunei Darussalam and Vanuatu, Liechtenstein finished dead last in their UEFA qualifying group with a pathetic record of 10 losses in 10 games played, one goal scored and 39 goals conceded. Only San Marino (10 losses, minus-49 goal difference) and Gibraltar (10 losses, minus-44 goal difference) had worse European qualifying campaigns than Liechtenstein.
A tiny nation in size (it’s roughly 160 square kilometres) and population (approximately 37,666 residents), Liechtenstein has long struggled in international soccer. It simply doesn’t have the resources to compete with Europe’s top nations, and most of its players aren’t even full-time professionals; the majority of players on the national team also have full- or part-time jobs on the side. One exception is Toronto FC midfielder Nicolas Hasler, who debuted for Liechtenstein in 2010 and has gone on to earn 49 caps and score two goals for his country.
Sportsnet chatted one-on-one with Hasler about the difficulties and challenges the Liechtenstein national team faces, and how he’s adapted to life in Canada since signing with TFC this past summer.
Why did Liechtenstein struggle so badly in World Cup qualifying this time around?
Of course, we had a very difficult group. A lot of other teams would have a big struggle in this group with Spain and Italy, two fantastic teams. Albania was in Euro last year, so first of all, it was the group.
But then we’ve had a difficult year with our national team because a lot of old players stopped playing football because their jobs are more important – they weren’t full professionals, so they stopped their football careers to focus on their jobs.
There is an age between 27 and 31 years, this age is missing now in our team. We have a lot of really old players and then most of the team are young players with little experience. So, this is a very young team, and we’re all not professionals.
The lack of full-time professionals has to be a big problem for Liechtenstein, no?
We are a very rich country, so for families, the parents tell their children to find a good job and to search for a good career [rather] than to be a professional soccer player. They don’t want to take the risk to even try it, so that’s why we don’t have a lot of professional players. They are more concerned about getting a good job and making a good career.
So, it’s a cultural issue? How does the Liechtenstein national team overcome this?
Well, it’s difficult. The country is trying to [launch] a sports centre to identify and develop young players, but this is the next problem we have: there is not enough room in our country to build this big centre. They have been trying for 10 years to build this centre, but up until now the country has said no. As soon as we have this maybe young players will try to focus more on soccer and try to become professionals. But this is the big problem we have at the moment.
How demoralizing are the country’s constant poor results for you as one of the few full-time professionals on the Liechtenstein national team?
It’s very frustrating, I would like to win games and make better results, but in the end, you want to do all for your country – you want to fight for your country. I’m proud to play these international games. We have to fight, we have to try everything, but in the end, it’s a very difficult situation. As a country, we have to make this developmental centre a reality, like Iceland did – they have small country like us, but they did a developmental centre where young players try to get better, and I think this the next step for our country.
Have the poor results dampened your spirit or willingness to play for your country?
No. If you can represent your country, it’s one of the biggest things you can do. Even if it’s a small country like ours, you play for your country, you have your flag on your chest and you want to do everything for it. I know it’s a difficult situation for us, but I’m sure the results will come soon and the joy will be bigger.
When you’re on international duty for Liechtenstein, do you talk to your teammates about MLS? Do any of them ask you about the league or hint that they want to play in MLS?
There are a lot of questions, and people ask me about MLS. The professional players ask a lot – I think they would love to play here. They see how the stadiums are filled with fans, the soccer is good. I told them they should try to come over, but at the end, it’s difficult. We’re a small nation and if you have Liechtenstein stamped on your passport, nobody cares about you. In the end, this is the issue. They say, ‘Can they even play football?’ This is difficult.
You’ve been here in Toronto for several months and had some time to get used to MLS. What are your impressions of the league? Has MLS been what you thought it would be?
No, I think it’s even bigger. I know Canada and America are big nations, but I wouldn’t expect the number of fans, this amazing ambience in the stadiums, these fantastic group of players that we have here in Toronto. For me, it’s been amazing.
Have you formed friendships with any of your teammates? Who are you close with on the team?
I’m living in the same building as [Alex] Bono, so I do a lot with him, and a lot with Oyvind [Alseth] and Jay [Chapman], the guys who live close to me. There is also Chris Mavinga – I talk a lot with him. We go out for dinner. I drive with Nick [Hagglund] and Drew [Moor] up to training, and I drive back with Bones [Alex Bono]. They’re all big friends for me, but I get along with everybody here.
Culturally, have you found any similarities between Canada and Liechtenstein?
I would say, for me, the people there and here are the same: very friendly. This is a big similarity about the two countries. Canada is much bigger, but in the end, people are friendly and helpful.