The best striker you've never heard of? Welcome to IBWM, Matt Morrison.
Mario Frick, now thirty-six, has had a football career that may look unspectacular to most but one that can only be dreamed of by young Liechtensteiners trying to make a living from the game. The striker’s time at nine clubs across three countries during the last two decades has not yielded any major trophies, but he can look back proudly on the number of games and goals he notched up during a nine-year spell in Italy.
If you’re born a Liechtensteiner and begin to develop an interest andability in football, you must think yourself seriously unlucky. The tiny principality, sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria, has a population of around 35,000, comparable to such hotbeds of football as Port Talbot, Accrington and Bishops Stortford and, as much as I’d like to see those towns have a stab at qualifying for an international football competition, to say they would struggle goes well beyond an understatement.
This is what Liechtenstein have attempted since 1994 with their first entry into a qualification campaign (for Euro 96). Unsurprisingly, they picked up just one point and scored one goal in their ten games, which included an 8-0 defeat in Portugal. While they have improved since with wins over Latvia and Iceland and a draw with Portugal in recent years, and in picking up eight points in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, they are currently a lowly 147th in the FIFA World Rankings. Either side of them are Guinea-Bissau and St Vincent and the Grenadines. Charlie Connelly’s book ‘Stamping Grounds: Liechtenstein’s World Cup Odyssey’ followed their 2002 World Cup qualification campaign and is well worth a read. I won’t spoil the ending, but they didn’t qualify.
The perception of the life of a footballer hailing from one of Europe’s ‘minnow’ countries is of bank managers and bus drivers having a few days out every year playing at some of the best stadiums in Europe, losing 5-0 and maybe picking up a souvenir shirt or two along the way - something to tell the grandchildren. And that’s not too far from the truth, though I’m starting to feel that it has become mandatory for these teams to have a bank manager among their ranks. Liechtenstein have few professional players and the constraints this state of affairs creates often hinders a footballer’s chances of improving, being noticed, and being taken seriously, by bigger clubs. Frick, though, has broken this half-myth with a career that has taken him to the heights of Serie A.
Born in Chur, Switzerland in 1974, he came through the youth ranks at FC Balzers, a team from a small town in Liechtenstein who compete in the lower divisions of the Swiss league (as do all teams from Liechtenstein). After helping Balzers to the Liechtenstein Cup in 1993, Frick moved to St Gallen in the Swiss National League A (as it then was). After two seaons there, he moved on to Basel, where he enjoyed a prolific three-year spell. Following a season at FC Zurich in 1999/2000, Frick made the step up with a move to Italy: becoming the first Liechtensteiner to play in the Italian league. He joined the Tuscan side Arezzo, then in Serie C1 (and who have since been declared bankrupt and reformed), where his sixteen goals in twenty-three games earned him a move to Serie A with Hellas Verona for the 2001/02 campaign.
Despite Verona’s strong side that year, which included the likes of Adrian Mutu, Mauro Camoranesi. Marco Cassetti and Massimo Oddo, they were relegated to Serie B after a final day 3-0 defeat at Piacenza. Frick formed a good understanding with Mutu and Camoranesi in the front three, scoring his first Serie A goal in a 2-2 draw at Parma. Frick went on to score seven times in the league, finishing the season second top goalscorer. The season included some mad games and results including a 5-1 defeat at Torino with Verona having been a goal up with twenty minutes remaining and a 5-4 defeat at Lazio, where Frick scored the opener. Frick’s brace in a 2-0 win at home to Brescia was the highlight of his season.
Following relegation, Frick moved on to Umbrian side Ternana, where he had a successful four years, top scoring with sixteen and fifteen goals in 2004/05 and 2005/06 respectively: earning the imaginative nickname ‘Super Mario’ in the process. In spite of his goals, Frick’s Ternana career ended with another relegation in 2006 and he moved back to Serie A with Siena. He didn’t score prolifically at Siena but did score important winning goals against Roma, Reggina and Atalanta in 2008/09.
Frick helped to keep Siena in Serie A during his three seasons there but returned to Switzerland for a second spell at St Gallen in 2009. Frick's career is now winding down at a struggling Grasshopper Zurich side where he has been starting most games since his move in January. He recently scored the opener in a 4-1 win over his former club St Gallen.
Frick is Liechtenstein’s most capped international with 98 appearances for the national team and he will surely reach a century of caps in the upcoming European Championship qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Lithuania. He is also their record international goalscorer with 16. That may not sound like many but bear in mind Emile Heskey scored just seven goals in a ten year England career with David Beckham as the supply line. It’s also more than Peter Beardsley, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes managed for England. It should also be remembered that a game in which Liechtenstein score is an event in itself - they haven’t scored more than one goal in a match since October 2007. He managed a goal against Germany in June 2000 that made the score 2-2 on 56 minutes...we’ll ignore the fact that Germany went on to win 8-2 with five goals in the last 10 minutes.
Despite a lack of silverware at club level, he is a four time Liechtenstein Footballer of the Year, most recently in 2007. It makes you wonder who won the award in all those other years. But he is far from a spent force, relying on his name and substitute appearances to stagger towards a century of international caps. He is still a very influential figure and adds a touch of class to the national team, as his goal against Scotland last September showed.
I hope that it’s not disrespectful to suggest it is unlikely that Frick will be remembered outside of Liechtenstein and the clubs for which he played, but he should be held up as a shining beacon for those young players from San Marino, Andorra, Luxembourg, Malta and the like. His story shows that quality does get noticed wherever its roots lie, and the chance to play professionally is there for all. Liechtensteiners should be proud.
To read more from Matt, you can follow him on Twitter @Iammoribund, and visit his blog, Eestil Jalgpall.