Ask Markus Babbel about the FC Luzern youth side and he has no problem waxing lyrical about the team from central Switzerland, who are keen to defend their crown at this year's Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup - a tournament Babbel himself participated at. The 43-year-old, a 1996 UEFA European Championship winner with Germany and current Luzern first-team coach, took part in the prestigious youth tournament from 1990-92 with Bayern Munich. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Babbel discusses, among other things, his memories of the competition at the start of the 1990s and the pitfalls involved in youth work.
FIFA.com: As head coach at Luzern, it must have been reassuring to see the club's youngsters defy the odds to win the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup last year. Given that success, would you agree that Luzern have a bright future?
Markus Babbel: Of course. It was a great achievement from the team last year. I was delighted for every single player and for coach Gerardo Seoane. The Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup really is a prestigious tournament and for little FC Luzern to win it is fantastic. It shows that our youth work is on the right track. We're all hoping that one or two of the players manage to establish themselves in the first team. Remo Arnold is one example. He's a fixture in the senior squad and has already made a couple of appearances in the Super League. Four or five other players from that triumphant side train with us regularly. We hope they can make the step up to become professionals. We believe in them and are working on achieving that.
A closer look at the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup history books shows that as a youngster you played at the tournament three times for Bayern Munich, between 1990 and 1992. What memories do you have of that time?
I can't remember it that clearly because it was a long time ago after all. It was a fantastic tournament - as it is now - and it's always had a very attractive group of participating teams when you look at the names of the clubs that compete there. Unfortunately we never won it with Bayern [they finished third in 1990, fourth in 1991 and were not among the top four in 1992]. The level of football played was excellent, even back then. For us as players it was always a highlight to face teams like Manchester United, Inter Milan or a Brazilian side. The Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup has always attracted the big names and for us, taking part at the tournament was definitely a wonderful experience.
Young players dream of having a successful career and tournaments like this regularly attract a lot of talent scouts. Were you aware of that when you played and did it give you even greater motivation to stand out at the competition in Zurich?
No. As a player your main aim is to win a tournament like that. That's the key thing. When you play you want to win – always. So you always try to do your best. Sometimes you're able to do than better than at other times. I always tried to give 100 per cent, regardless of who was watching me from the stands. I wanted to win with the team.
What is your view on the development of youth football in general? Do you agree with everything that is done? Is too much or too little done for the young players?
I think we have to be careful. At the moment there's a development that I feel is somewhat problematic. Let's take the youth national teams as an example. They now have to play a huge amount of games for players of such a young age. On the one hand they have matches for their clubs, and on the other for the national set-up. It's often forgotten that some of these boys are still in school or are doing different apprenticeships and have to miss a lot of their classes or hours at work because of football. In Swiss football a talented young player can quickly get the chance to play professionally. If you put all of these factors together: club, youth national team, the much harder training with the first team, school and apprenticeships, then you notice with one or two of the boys that their performances fluctuate sometimes. On top of that you have injuries. Sometimes I ask myself if it's all too much for a young player. You have to find the right balance. And it's important for the coaches to communicate well with each other and to share information. You have to protect the players. Nevertheless, there's no doubting that nowadays young players have a lot more opportunities than when I was a youth player. The football training young players receive is often at a very high level.
Luzern are aiming to defend their title at the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup. Will you attend the tournament in person to cheer them on?
If my schedule allows it then I'll watch a couple of games. Zurich's not too far from Lucerne after all. It's always worthwhile paying the Blue Stars/FIFA Youth Cup a visit.