When the 75th edition of the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup kicks off in just a few weeks’ time, the participating youngsters will be following in some of the biggest footsteps in the world game. The Zurich-based tournament has given countless stars the opportunity to cut their teeth in international club football.
The current Switzerland No1, Diego Benaglio, is just one of the competition's alumni. The goalkeeper appeared at the Buchlern sports complex three times with Grasshopper Zurich between 2000 and 2002. "I only have good memories of it,” he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “The tournament was the highlight of the season for us. When my schedule allows it, I still enjoy going along to watch.
"Of course, for us it was fantastic to have such a major youth tournament in our home city,” Benaglio continued. “I think that made it all the more special. It's superbly organised and is everything you could possibly wish for."
First choice for club and country
Benaglio never won the competition, but did make it to the final in 2001. "I can't recall individual players, but I do remember that Gremio were too strong for us in the final," he said.
For the custodian, the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup was a springboard to greater things. A few months after his third outing in 2002, Benaglio left his native Zurich to join Bundesliga side Stuttgart. Yet with first team opportunities hard to come by there, he swapped Germany for Portugal three years later, signing on with Nacional Funchal. However, Benaglio still had unfinished business in Germany's top flight and returned in 2008. Since then he has become captain of Wolfsburg, with whom he won the league title, and has cemented his status as Switzerland's go-to goalkeeper.
Benaglio is aware that he owes much of his success, including participation at a FIFA World Cup™ and a Men's Olympic Football Tournament, to formative competitions like the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup. "There's no doubt that the tournament is a very good shop window," said Benaglio. "But the most important thing for me was to see that we could compete with players our age from big international clubs. That experience was very valuable for me."
Now 29, Benaglio has seen it all as a professional and his hoping to use his top-level know-how over the coming months to guide Switzerland to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. “At the moment we have a good mixture in the team. I think it’s important that we take things step by step and don’t think about the future too much. We’ve started well in qualifying and that was very important, but we can’t afford to make the mistake now of thinking we can ease off all of a sudden. We need to stay fully focused.”
The most important thing for me was to see that we could compete with players our age from big international clubs. That experience was very valuable for me.
Switzerland have picked up 11 points from five games to go top of European qualifying Group E, two points ahead of Iceland and Albania.
Should they secure their ticket to Brazil 2014, it would be Benaglio’s second appearance at a FIFA World Cup. In 2010 he was crucial to Switzerland handing eventual world champions Spain their only defeat at the tournament, a 1-0 win in their opening fixture.
Stepping stone to greatness
Beyond next year’s global showdown, Benaglio is keeping his options open. “As long as I’m enjoying it and feel fit, I’ll continue to play,” he said.
Whatever he decides, participants and spectators alike at the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup would be delighted were Benaglio to drop by. His presence alone would offer the youngsters a first-hand reminder of the tournament’s propensity to be a crucial stepping stone on the way to a dazzling football career.