Following their first competitive international match, Liechtensteins national team players were delirious with joy, hugged each other and celebrated their triumphant achievement: a 1:4 defeat in Belfast against the great Northern Ireland. But these days are over. Expectations and standards in the Principality have risen, the one-time football minnow has grown up.
Nobody could describe the development of Liechtensteins National Football Team better than Mario Frick. Now aged 41, Balzers-born Frick holds the record number of appearances for the team (125), and shot the highest number of goals (16). In 1994, he played during Liechtensteins very first competitive international match, and also played during the most recent such match in 2015. Mario Frick is the barometer of the National Team, says Radio-L Sports Director Chrisi Kindle of the current player/ trainer at FC Balzers. No other player so perfectly embodies the development from simple cannon fodder to the present-day team.
Cannon fodder, punch-bag, points supplier. Those were the terms most frequently used to describe Liechtenstein during the early days of its international career. But this was not entirely without justification, as Mario Frick recalls. We were an amateur team, a very weak amateur team. There were huge differences in the abilities of individual team members. At the latest 60 minutes into the game, we were reeling. Expectations were correspondingly rock-bottom. This sometimes meant that even defeats were celebrated deliriously. Like the 1:4 on 20 April 1994 at Windsor Park Stadium in Belfast against Northern Ireland. We sat in the whirlpool and celebrated the defeat as if it had been a triumphant victory. The very first goal scored during a competitive match it was fantastic. The goal was scored by the substituted Daniel Hasler, today Co-Trainer at FC Vaduz.
It was to be a number of years before Mario Frick scored his first goal for Liechtenstein. In 1997, during the 1:8 wipe-out versus Romania, the nimble striker put the ball in the net and brought the score to the provisional total of 1:7. By the time he ended his career on 12 October 2015 after the 0:3 defeat against Austria in Vienna, Frick had scored a further 15 times for Liechtenstein. His professional career saw him move from Switzerland to Italy, where he even successfully scored goals in the Serie A. Although he can still recall every detail of all his goals, Mario Fricks greatest moment occurred on 7 September 2010, when he marked his 36th birthday at the legendary Hampden Park Stadium against Scotland by putting Liechtenstein 1:0 in the lead. The goal that levelled the score at 2:2 in Freiburg against Germany on 7 June 2000 is also unforgettable. At the end of the day, admittedly, it was not enough. Thanks to 5 goals during the final 10 minutes of the game, Goliath swept fatigued David from the pitch with 8:2.
He didnt always enjoy tying his shoelaces for his home country, Mario Frick confesses. The first few years were tough. Particularly for a player like Frick, for whom only two things counted: scoring goals and winning. I was never a fan of the Olympic spirit of being there is everything. The situation improved tangibly after 2003, under the Trainer Walter Hörmann, stresses Frick. He modernised our playing system. Everything became more professional, training opportunities, analyses, the players themselves. Under Hörmanns successor Martin Andermatt a proven tactician Liechtenstein generated an international furore. On 9 October 2004, Liechtenstein withstood Portugal and its superstars Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Pauleta during the qualification for the 2006 World Cup; played at home, the final score was 2:2. This can still be said to be the National Teams greatest success to date. It was the first point earned by Liechtenstein during a World Championship qualifier.
Four days later, in an away match, the Liechtenstein squad swept Luxembourg out of the competition with a 4:0 score. This was also its first-ever away victory. Its punchingbag reputation was set aside for once and for all. While Liechtenstein used to be seen as a welcome, knock-over opponent, in recent years the team has become a dangerous outsider that has occasionally cost trainers their jobs. Some left voluntarily, while others were forced out because their team failed to beat us, recalls Frick.
Despite the many defeats Mario Frick is the first player to have lost 100 international matches he now looks back fondly on his time in the squad. It was a wonderful time, and helped to make me the man I am. I learnt a great deal, and matured. And the team learnt and matured too.
With the European Championship qualifier on 12 October 2015 in Vienna versus Austria (0:3), Mario Frick ended his career in the team. Originally a striker, he had come to be deployed as an inside defender. The end of his career? From the current perspective, yes, he answers with a grin. But never say never. For one particular match would certainly tempt him back: away against Italy, within the context of the qualifications for the 2018 World Cup. Italy is Fricks second home, he played and lived here from 2000 to 2009.
A comeback by Mario Frick would probably not be blocked by the resistance of the current National Team Trainer, René Pauritsch. Quite the contrary, in fact. According to Frick, Pauritsch has on a number of occasions offered him the opportunity to return. Whereby a return to the Liechtenstein National Team has indeed been planned by the friendly Balzers-born Frick: I stated a number of years ago that one of my major goals was to train the National Team one day.
Text: Michael Benvenuti