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Sunday, August 4, 2019


Stories abound of British sailors, soldiers and entrepreneurs who introduced football to colonies and countries all over the world, from Russia to Brazil to New Zealand and everywhere in between. Well, almost everywhere. One country which was left well alone to follow its own path was Luxembourg..although there was certainly a British influence.

The first mention of football being introduced to the Grand Duchy dates from 1889 when one Henri Baclesse brought a football back from England where he had been on a business trip. Baclesse was a member of the Cercle d’Escrime et Grand-Ducal de Gymnastique Luxembourg (CGDEL) sports club, an organisation which was founded in 1879 – it concentrated mainly on fencing and gymnastics, as the title suggests, and exists to this day.

Born Heinrich Peter Nicolas Baclesse in the tiny village of Wahl on 22 January 1858, Baclesse moved to Hollerich, then just outside the city of Luxembourg (it was incorporated into the city in 1922), in his twenties, and he was a veritable sporting enthousiast. He was mentioned in the CGDEL archives as holding the post of treasurer as far back as 1882. 

Returning from the aforementioned business trip to England in 1889, Baclesse brought back a football for use by CGDEL’s more youthful fencers in an attempt to encourage them to indulge in some outdoor physical exercise, and although there was a lot of initial enthusiasm among the club’s members, this didn’t translate into something more long-term, and, as the students' enthusiasm waned, his attempts ultimately came to nothing.

Baclesse was someone who passionately believed in sport, and he was also a founding member of the Union Vélocipédique Luxembourgeoise (UVL) when that organisation came into existence in June 1896 after a meeting of around 275 cyclists in the small town of Mondorf-les-Bains. The UVL later evolved into the Fédération du Sport Cycliste Luxembourgeois (FSCL).

Apart from being involved in sporting administration, Baclesse was also quite a successful businessman, and, in later life, ran a sweet-shop (now a bar) together with two of his sisters, Joséphine and Sophie, on the Grand Rue; he was also a juror at a couple of international exhibitions, and, it would appear, even briefly dabbled in politics, running for office in a local election in 1914.

Baclesse disappeared from public life sometime shortly afterwards, and died on 8 October 1931. He was 73 years old. Sisters Joséphine and Sophie both died in 1928, aged 77 and 75 respectively. All three of them died unmarried and childless.
His nephew, Francois, born in 1896 to Henri's brother Richard, earned rather more fame, not on the football pitch, but in the field of science, and, in particular, the field of clinical radiotherapy, having been a student of Marie Curie at the Radium Institute before becoming chief radiologist at the Curie Institute. So much for the theory that there are no famous Luxembourgers.

Although Henri Baclesse died alone and in obscurity, his role in attempting to get football established in football all but ignored, he deserves praise for his role in the development of sport in the Grand Duchy, thus surely earning an honourable place in the annals of the country's sporting history.

In the formative years of the twentieth century, some ten years after Baclesse’s introduction of the round ball to Luxembourg society floundered, another Luxembourger brought football to his native land, and had more, lasting, success.

A young teacher named Jean Röder, who was born in the tiny village of Roodt (situated in Redange canton) on 18 June 1873, had been studying in England since 1890, where he had developed an enthusiasm for football, and for the usefulness of sport in general as a method of improving one’s physical well-being.

Upon his return to Luxembourg at the beginning of 1902, he found work as an English teacher at the local School of Industry and Business (Lycée de l'Industrie et du Commerce d'Esch, today known as the LGE) in the town of Esch-sur-Alzette in the south-west of the country, and his educating skills were not solely employed in the classroom.  Soon after he took up his teaching post, he set about instructing his students in the finer art of football, and they took up the sport with alacrity.

At around the same time, street kickabouts were beginning to take place across Esch-sur-Alzette, which at that time was a far from prosperous mining town. Eventually, after many difficulties ranging from the inability to secure somewhere to train to finding enough people to form a team, a club, containing twenty-three members, five of whom were pupils at Röder's school, was formed in December 1906 with Röder at the helm: Fola Esch Football and Lawn Tennis Club, the first football club to be formed in Luxembourg. And, he was also one of a group of people behind the creation of the Federation of Athletic Sports Societies of Luxembourg in November 1908, which became the Luxembourg FA just under a year later.

There was to be a second club in Esch-sur-Alzette before the end of 1907, and it was founded by Hein Rizzi and another of Röder's pupil at the LGE, JP Weber: Football and Lawn Tennis Club Jeunesse de la Frontière, better known today as Jeunesse Esch. A rivalry quickly sprung up between both clubs which, apart from a long, long period in the latter part of the last century, has endured to this day.

(Jeunesse fans maintain that the club they follow is a working-class club while the team from just up the hill has always been supported by the local élite, and the Stade de la Frontière has become a popular destination for foreign groundhoppers and reporters from various foreign football publications who seek a bit of "authenticity." Yet, for decades, Jeunesse were among the country's top teams while Fola were the more impoverished of the two clubs as they languished in the second and third levels of Luxembourg's football pyramid.)

Röder had his own philosophy as to how a club could be run; sport was good for the soul as well as for the body, and, in a club, there was room for everybody: "You form a family of sportsmen. Each member, from first to last, wears a sports uniform and loves sports as such, be it football, cross-country, fencing, lawn tennis or cricket. Even disciples of the Thalia and the Terpsichore [two of the nine Muses of Ancient Greece, sister goddesses who symbolised the arts and sciences] are under your stewardship."

He stepped down from the presidency in 1913, and in time faded from public view, if not from the consciousness of those connected with the club. He died in October 1949, aged 76. Jean Röder is a revered figure at his beloved Fola, even today, and football in Luxembourg owes him, Rizzi, Weber and their contemporaries a huge debt of thanks. One can only imagine what both Röder and Baclesse, the trailblazers that they were, would think of the recent and long overdue improvement in the standard of football in their country, but they would surely have approved.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to Eva Bange and colleagues Monique and Tai at the Hôtel de Ville in Luxembourg and Gilbert Goergen (Fola Esch chairman) for their kind assistance with the above article. The Luxemburger Wort's on-line archive was liberally delved into, and information was also found in an article celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of Jeunesse Useldange, if I remember rightly. This article actually came about thanks to an article I found via a Twitter post a number years ago; it aroused my interest, but information was extremely difficult to come by. Any errors or omissions will gladly be rectified upon receipt of information.