At 14:00 local time on 15 June 2014, the second half of the match between Ecuador and Switzerland was just getting under way at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia. It was Switzerland’s opening fixture at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ and with the Nati 1-0 down, coach Ottmar Hitzfeld brought on a fresh attacker in Admir Mehmedi during the break.
Three minutes into the second half Ricardo Rodriguez swung a corner from the left into the middle, where Mehmedi headed in from close range with his first touch of the ball. Not only did his goal bring Switzerland back into the game, it also earned him a place in the record books as the first Swiss substitute to score at a World Cup.
Mehmedi went on to perform well in subsequent games in Brazil with his turn of pace and ability on the ball a constant menace to opposition defences. However, it was not the first time the Macedonian native had impressed at a FIFA tournament. The 24-year-old is one of a growing list of stars to have cut their teeth on the international stage at the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup. David Beckham, Diego Benaglio, Xherdan Shaqiri and Gerard Pique, to name but a few, are also among the alumni to have taken part at the event.
Mehmedi took the Buchlern sport complex by storm in 2008. His club, FC Zurich, faced national rivals FC Basel in the final and despite going 2-0 down, they fought back to win 3-2 thanks to a Mehmedi hat-trick.
“That was a while ago but I can still clearly remember the tournament,” he told FIFA.com of what he described as a special moment. “I scored all three goals and even at youth level it’s always especially good to beat Basel when you play for Zurich.”
The inaugural edition of the Youth Cup, an international youth tournament held in Switzerland, was in 1939, and in May each year the U-19 teams from some of the world’s biggest clubs meet in Zurich to jostle for supremacy. “As a young player it gives you the opportunity to play against good sides from across the globe,” Mehmedi said. “That’s not a chance you get very often at youth level. A lot of factors are important in the development of a young player. You need good coaches, a good environment, good team-mates and certainly good opposition too.”
The Youth Cup has long been renowned for its illustrious participants. Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Boca Juniors, PSV Eindhoven, Spartak Moscow, Inter Milan and AC Milan have all sent their youth teams to the event on a number of occasions.
"Where stars are born"
The experience was undeniably beneficial to Mehmedi’s progress. Shortly after his towering display in the 2008 final he made the step up to the senior team at Zurich, where he continued to impress. He joined Dynamo Kiev in 2012 but moved to German Bundesliga side SC Freiburg on loan a year later, making the deal permanent shortly afterwards.
Mehmedi played a major role in helping Freiburg stay in the top flight in his debut campaign in 2013/14, scoring 12 goals and contributing a further four assists. He was rewarded with a place in Switzerland’s World Cup squad, and this year’s Youth Cup participants are undoubtedly hoping for similarly successful careers. On 13 and 14 May, football fans in Zurich will be able to admire the talents of the youngsters from Werder Bremen, FC Zurich, Feyenoord, Sporting Lisbon, Club Atletico Paranaense and hosts FC Blue Stars Zurich.
Having learned of the tournament’s history first hand, Mehmedi can empathise with the emotions the players will feel en route to the competition: “The tournament has a long-standing tradition and even back when I played there we knew, for example, that David Beckham had once played at the Youth Cup. That was extremely motivating.”
The tournament’s slogan, "Where Stars are born", is therefore an appropriate one. It will be intriguing to see which future household names will be on display at this year’s edition, and perhaps one of them will likewise go on to make World Cup history in a few years.