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Young footballers risk scoring own goal

Nassim Ben Khalifa is a star in Switzerland Keystone

In November 2009, Switzerland’s Under-17 footballers were sensationally crowned world champions, attracting the attention of the big European clubs.

But packing one’s bags and heading to Europe at a young age rarely ends in success, according to Markus Frei, who coached the Under-17s to European success in 2002 and is now in charge of giving career guidance to young Swiss players.

Julian Esteban, Sandro Bürki, Fabrizio Zambrella – there is no shortage of talented young Swiss players who tried their luck abroad but ended up waiting patiently in the antechambers of the big European clubs. Kept out by fierce competition or injuries, many have damaged their career prospects.

Although it’s still early days, the situation seems to apply to several of the victorious Under-17 squad. One year on, how significant was the victory at the World Championships in Nigeria?

Markus Frei: The title was extremely important for Swiss football and for the promotion of the squad – as was the title of European Champions for the Under 17 squad in 2002. Today, a young player of 14 or 15 knows there’s a chance that he could win a major competition as a member of a Swiss team. Ten years ago that was out of the question.

However, a title like this in no way guarantees what happens next in their career. Certain players have received tempting offers from big clubs abroad. But apart from [18-year-old] Patjim Kasami, who regularly starts for Palermo [in the Italian Serie A], deciding to play abroad hasn’t really paid off.

In Switzerland Nassim Ben Khalifa, one of the most visible players in Nigeria, is a star. At Wolfsburg [in the German Bundesliga], he is a young player – certainly talented – but no one knows him. Every day he has to fight for a place against dozens of other young talented players. In these clubs the team is based on internal competition – those who fail to impose themselves are simply left to one side.

[On November 5 there were unconfirmed reports in Swiss newspapers that Ben Khalifa could return to Switzerland, on loan, to either FC Sion or Young Boys Bern.] Two other stars in Nigeria – Haris Seferovic and Frédéric Veseli – don’t get a game for their respective clubs (Fiorentina and Manchester City). How do you see their situation?

M.F.: They get games, but not at the level they want. Let’s get back to Ben Khalifa. At Wolfsburg he plays in the fourth division [in Wolfsburg’s B or C team] – that’s like playing in the second division in Switzerland. Last year he developed at Grasshoppers [Zurich] in the top division. He’s taken a step backwards.

From a purely sporting point of view, Ben Khalifa went abroad too young. If a player like [19-year-old] Xherdan Shaqiri, who has already seen action in the Swiss championship, comes to be bought by Bayern Munich for a significant amount, the coach would then be obliged to play him. At Wolfsburg, Ben Khalifa has no weight. He is one disposable talent among many. You’re saying it’s essential that young players cut their teeth in Switzerland before trying their luck abroad?

M.F.: Look at the statistics. Among the 40-50 players selected in recent years by [Swiss national team coaches] Köbi Kuhn and Ottmar Hitzfeld, only three haven’t played in the top Swiss division: Diego Benaglio, Marco Padalino and Johan Djourou. All the others have spent at least one or two seasons in Switzerland before moving abroad.

Nine times out of ten, heading abroad at a young age ends in failure. At 17, it’s very hard to get going again. It’s a problem for Swiss football. The Germans have 20 times the number of graduates – they can afford to lose young talents along the way. We don’t have that luxury – we can’t do without players like Seferovic or Ben Khalifa. This phenomenon is not new. Why do players insist on leaving the Swiss league at a young age?

M.F.: The problem began right after the Under-17s won the European title in 2002. In recent years it’s got worse. The number of players leaving is going up – and they are getting younger and younger. In 2009 Martin Angha left Zurich for Arsenal when he was 16.

The main reason for going abroad at a young age is of course money. I can understand families who see it as a means to quickly improve their quality of life. Prestige is the other driving force. How can you say no to a scout from Arsenal or Juventus who comes to your house and suggests your kid develops at one of the biggest clubs on the planet? Every player thinks he is something special and that he can succeed where others have failed.

Other factors are not to be ignored. Agents only earn money by negotiating transfers. And for some clubs it’s sometimes vital to sell their young talents. Had Grasshoppers not sold Ben Khalifa, they would have had to say goodbye to the top division. What can be done to stem this exodus by young players?

M.F.: Well you can’t ban transfers – that would violate the free movement of people treaty at the heart of the European Union. The only thing you can do is to inform parents and players better.

The Swiss Football Association has given me a mandate to accompany these young talents when it comes to planning their career. Over the coming months I’m going to meet each of the 40 players in the national Under-15 squad. Similarly, if there are legal problems, they can turn to the football association.

Less than a month ago I spoke to Frédéric Veseli, who in 2008 joined Manchester City. This winter he’s going to make an assessment of his time in Britain. Players are aware of their situation – they see the progress made by their colleagues. A year ago Granit Xhaka [who plays at Basel] or Ricardo Rodrigues [Zurich] weren’t as well known as Seferovic or Ben Khalifa, but today they regularly play in the Swiss top division.

2002: U17 European Champions; U21 European semifinalists.

2004: U19 European semifinalists.

2005: U20 qualified for the World Cup.

2009: U17 European semifinalists and World Cup champions.

(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)

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