Dudelange insist they can stand up to Europe's elite
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Dudelange (Luxembourg) (AFP)
"Everyone believes we will let in 4 or 5, but I think we will be far from being humiliated," said Clement Couturier, a midfielder with Dudelange who, on Thursday, become the first Luxembourg team to play in the Europa League group stage.
The tiny club, who have in their squad a dozen non-professional players, find themselves in a tough group alongside AC Milan, Olympiakos and Sevilla's Real Betis.
"Reaching the Europa League pool phase was a dream for us," smiles Dino Toppmoeller, Dudelange's 37-year-old German coach who is the son of the much-travelled coach Klaus Toppmoeller.
"It's good for us, good for the whole country and we are of course very happy with this draw, it's a little cherry on the cake."
The Luxembourg champions entertain AC Milan on Thursday. It is the latest challenge in a European odyssey that started against Videoton in the first qualifying of the Champions League on July 10, the day France beat Belgium in the World Cup semifinals.
Eliminated from the premier competition by the Hungarians, Dudelange dropped into the Europa League, where they eliminated Drita from Kosovo, Legia Warsaw and finally Cluj of Romania to reach the group stage.
There is some experience in the squad.
Milan Bisevac, a 35-year-old former Serbian international, had spells at Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon and Lazio.
Landry Bonnefoi, a 34-year-old French goalie, was at Juventus in his youth and played four times for Strasbourg in Ligue 1 last season.
Couturier played in the French Cup final last season for Herbiers, from the National league, or regional third division, as they lost to PSG. That proved a springboard to European football.
"I wanted to discover a new league and a new way of working," he said. "And to have a chance of discovering the European Cup, as one can here, is a real plus for a National player like me. Honestly, if you'd told me that I was going to play AC Milan this season, it's unimaginable!"
Fullback Bryan Melisse was once at the French National Institute of Football, which trained Thierry Henry and Kylian Mbappe among others. Now he owns a pizzeria in Metz.
Dudelange have won 10 Luxembourg league titles, all since 2000 and have competed regularly in early rounds of the Champions League. In 2012, they upset Red Bull Salzburg on away goals to reach the third qualifying round.
The town, which sits close to the French border, has a population of 21,000 and the ground holds 8,000. The tickets for each of the three group games sold out in 30 minutes.
The club has an annual budget of 2.5 million euros ($2.9m, £2.22m). Thursday's visitors, AC Milan, have a budget of nearly 300 million euros.
"We may have to wait 50 years to relive this," said Francois Mostert, a long-time fan wary that bigger clubs might loot the players who have taken Dudelange this far.
Dino Toppmoeller, a striker in his playing days which included brief stops at Eintracht Frankfurt and Manchester City as well as Dudelange, does not agree.
"I think it will not be the last time that a Luxembourg team will play the big guns Europa League, I hope that in the next 10 years, we will be able to qualify three or four times," the coach said.
"What we have done is extraordinary, but it must become a regular target."
© 2018 AFP