The year was 2001. Everybody in Italy was dancing to the rhythm of 'La vie c'est fantastique' (life is wonderful), one of the most iconic tracks of the italodance current that took the peninsula by storm at the turn of the millennium. The song was sung in French, but was a creation of Italian artists S.M.S. and Rehb. In fact, nobody seemed to care much about nationality. The refrain, obsessively repeated according to electropop tradition, was all that mattered: 'la vie c'est fantastique, pourquoi tu te la complique?' (life's wonderful, why complicate it?).
Providing an insight into one of Italy's trashiest songs is beyond the aims of an article about football, but this musical premise is a useful introduction to another topic. A topic that is far more interesting for fans of the beautiful game.
If you whistle the abovementioned tune in front a Hellas Verona supporter, his or her mind will inevitably be cast back to 2001: but not to a roller rink with half naked girls on the Adriatic Riviera, but to Sundays spent at the Bentegodi Stadium, hailing the goals of Mario Frick. When the man from Liechtenstein used to score, he would reveal a white undershirt with the script 'la vie c'est fantastique, quando segna Mario Frick', a curious mix of French and Italian which translated as 'life is wonderful, when Mario Frick scores'.
This alone would be enough to secure Frick’s cult status, but his significance went beyond a goal celebration. For more than 20-years, Mario Frick has been a global representative of Liechtenstein. A symbol and a model to follow for aspiring Liechtensteiner kids; the hope of a whole nation.
Born on 7 September 1974 in a Swiss town called Chur, but officially a Liechtensteiner citizen, Frick started kicking a ball at FC Balzers – a little club located in a town of 4500 inhabitants in the principality. His success in front of goal soon caught the eye of Swiss side St. Gallen, where he moved in 1994. He then played at FC Basel and FC Zürich, scoring goals and gathering experience, until the 25-year-old striker grabbed the attention of scouts across the Italian border.
This combined with his troubled relationship with Zürich's manager at the time, prompted Frick to hop on one of those trains that only pass once in a lifetime. He had been given the chance to play in Italy’s Serie C1, at Arezzo, where scout Tito Corsi suggested the club purchase the forward. In the summer of 2000, Frick became the first Liechtensteiner to play in another country apart from Switzerland. The most exciting part of his career was about to begin.
In his first season in Italy, Mario Frick scored 16 goals in just 23 appearances. The Liechtensteiner hoped his performances would attracted the attentions of a Serie B side, but sometimes reality is better than imagination. Coach Alberto Malesani wanted him at Hellas Verona, in Serie A.
Despite having to compete with a number of talented forwards including Adaílton, Michele Cossato, Alberto Gilardino and Adrian Mutu, Frick established himself as the main centre-forward of Hellas' 3-4-3 formation, scoring seven goals in 24 matches; each time proudly showing off his funny white undershirt. Unfortunately, this was not enough to save the Gialloblu from relegation and, at the end of the season, Mario Frick moved to Ternana.
In Umbria, Frick enjoyed his happiest moments, scoring 46 goals in four Serie B seasons, becoming the most prolific foreigner in club's history. This even earned him the nickname of Mario Freak. Despite his efforts, Ternana were relegated in 2006, and Mario was ready for his comeback to the top flight, this time with Siena.
Despite a modest tally of 13 goals in three seasons, he remained an important point of reference in Siena’s front-line. At the end of 2008-09 campaign, at the age of 34, Mario decided to return home: playing for St. Gallen, Grasshoppers and finally Balzers, because the first love is the one we never forget. At the Liechtensteiner club, he went part-time, fulfilling a player-coach role, before announcing his retirement in 2016, aged 41.
Let's be clear: Mario Frick was not an outstanding striker. He did not score a crazy amount of goals, but his contributions were always significant nonetheless. His were not highly-refined feet and many of his goals were those of the proverbial ‘poacher’. They were often simple rather than extravagant. To be fair, these kinds of goals are not easy, because you need anticipation, timing and intuition; but it’s not like dribbling past the whole opposition defence, of course. Occasionally, he demonstrated these abilities too.
But what has turned Mario Frick into a living legend is not his goal in Catania - Ternana on 23 March 2006, which saw him complete a mazy 60-yard run by smashing the ball into the corner. Nor was it the goal he scored on 25 October 2006, again against Catania (this time wearing the Siena shirt), when he defied the rules of physics by guiding a ball that had rebounded off the cross bar into the net with his heel. Mario Frick has always been this kind of player: an opportunist capable of brilliance. A player with a big heart, good physique, but not exactly one of the pretenders for the Ballon d'Or. So why am I dedicating all these words to him, here? The reason is simple: he is from Liechtenstein.
Frick made his debut with the national team in 1993, when he was 19, and retired last year, playing against Austria on 12 October 2015. In 22-years, he amassed 125 appearances and scored 16 goals. It would be fruitless to try and compare his achievements to those of his compatriots. His contribution to football in Liechtenstein is unique
It's not easy playing for the Liechtenstein national team, travelling Europe only to concede plenty of goals and playing with an awareness that earning a good result is a hard task even versus Malta, San Marino or Andorra. Liechtenstein is a country of 36,000 inhabitants. For their national team, the only reasonable ambition is scoring three or four goals in the whole World Cup qualifying rounds. But under Frick's guidance, they achieved some unthinkable results, like the wins over Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Latvia or the valuable draws with Slovakia, Iceland, Montenegro and, most notably, Portugal. Considering the context, Mario Frick's achievement of 16 goals in 22 years is more than outstanding.
If I were to argue that Mario Frick has been more influential for Liechtenstein than, say, Francesco Totti for Italy or Andriy Shevchenko for Ukraine, you may think I was crazy. Arguably, however, never has there been a player so iconic for a whole country (especially as small as Liechtenstein) like Mario Frick. We can only imagine what it meant for other Liechtensteiner players to represent their nation side by side with someone who had played against Alessandro Del Piero, Andrea Pirlo and Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Every time Liechtenstein is mentioned, every Italian (not only Hellas, Ternana and Siena fans) immediately thinks of Mario Frick. That is the first (and perhaps the only) thing that springs to mind. Mario Frick has almost become Liechtenstein itself, at least in Italy.
But without their icon, what does the future hold for the little principality's national team? Who will inherit Frick's enormous charisma?
The most obvious candidate is Marcel Büchel. There are several affinities with Mario Frick: he is a Liechtensteiner citizen but was born abroad (though, unlike Frick, in Austria), his first major team was St. Gallen and, most importantly, he has spent his career in the Italian provinces, currently playing at Empoli after some loans to minor Serie B and Lega Pro clubs. His position is different from Frick's – he is a midfielder – but the similarities between their careers are impossible to overlook.
Other than Büchel, the player who, for the moment seems the most talented in Liechtenstein is Dennis Salanović. Despite joining Atlético Madrid’s youth academy in 2014, he remains something of an unknown quantity and he has since spent his time being loaned out to Europe’s less established leagues. Salanović is undoubtedly a gifted player though and decided to embrace the Liechtensteiner cause, turning down chances to play for Bosnia, the country from which his parents originate.
Büchel and Salanović are good players, considering Liechtenstein’s overall level, but if it is true that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, then we have to look at Frick's own family to search for an heir. Or maybe two.
Yanick Frick, born in 1998, is a centre-forward, and made his debut for the Liechtenstein senior team on 6 October 2016, just under a year after his father retired. Noah Zinedine Frick, on the other hand, was born in 2001 and, with his highly poetical first name, can be nothing but a striker. He is currently signed to FC Vaduz U18 team and, for those interested, he wears the number 10 shirt...
It is obviously too early to proclaim who the next Mario Frick will be. With his retirement, a whole country has lost a key figure, not only for football, but life in general. Through his career, Frick raised the red-and-blue flag higher than anybody else, ensuring many Italians discovered a corner of the world little known to most. Maybe, in 20 years, there will be someone else composing an article like this, this time explaining how two brothers from Vaduz continued the Frick legacy in Liechtenstein.
Words by Franco Ficetola: @Franco92C14
Franco is a son of Rome who grew up admiring Totti's assists and chasing a ball through the streets of the capital's suburbs. Now he spends most of his time watching football matches, regardless of the league, the country or the level. He also writes for @JustFootball.