The Viareggio Tournament - the first step to greatness
On Monday 21 February, 2011, the 63rd edition of the Viareggio Cup World Football Tournament (‘Viareggio Tournament’ for short) kicked off. Its long history, as well as its reputation for showcasing some of the finest youth players in the world, before they go on to become household names, means the competition is one of the most prestigious within world youth football.
The tournament is the creation of the Centro Giovani Calciatori Viareggio (the Viareggio Young Players Centre) – a sporting organisation founded in 1947 that helps develop young sportspeople in five different sports: athletics, hockey, basketball, volleyball and football. Two years after it was founded, in 1949, the first Viareggio Tournament took place.
Back then, there were 10 clubs – two from France (Nice and Rapid Menton), Bellinzona from Switzerland and seven from Italy (Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, Sampdoria, Lucchese and two youth sides from Viareggio and Livorno). Milan won this first edition, overcoming Lazio 5-1 in the final.
Other than the bulk of Italian entrants that enter the competition, it was initially only open to teams based in Europe – with Partizan Belgrade becoming the first non-Italian winners in 1951 (only three other non-Italian clubs have since won the tournament). However, as its status grew, and the number of competing teams increased to 16, the invitation was extended to clubs from across the globe. In 1970, Boca Juniors became the first side outside of Europe to enter, but it was not until 2006, when Uruguay’s Juventud were victorious, that a non-European outfit were successful.
That year (2006) the amount of teams increased to the current number of 48, such was the competition’s success and the sheer number of clubs wanting to enter – though it briefly went back to 40 in 2009. The tournament now takes place over two weeks, with the tight scheduling meaning coaches have to make full use of their 24-man squads in order to protect their young players.
The 48 teams are split into 12 divisions (there is no difference between each division) of four teams, and these 12 divisions are categorised into two groups – A and B. Divisions 1-6 go into A, and 7-12 into B – once again there is no difference between A or B, it is simply a method of grouping the divisions. The 12 division winners progress to the knockout round, along with the two most successful division runners-up from Group A and Group B, and so a total of 16 teams go through, eight from each group.
For the knockout round, the four division winners with the best record from each group are seeded (so there are four seeds from Group A and four from Group B). The remaining four teams from each group – the other two division winners, plus the best runners-up – are entered into a draw to decide which seed from Group B they will face. The reverse happens with those non-seeds from Group B.
For a player to be eligible he must be born between 1 January 1991 and 31 December 1995 – ensuring the tournament is essentially one for players aged 15-20. However, each team is allowed two players born in 1990, provided that player is actually owned by the club (and not on loan from someone else). For players born after 31 December 1995, there is the Viareggio Junior Cup for Under-15s. This version of the competition was only created last year, with Vincenzo Montella, now Roma Coach, leading his youngsters to victory in the first edition.
The number of great players to have participated in this tournament is large, far too many to simply list all of them. However, to put it into context, 16 of the 23 World Cup 2006 winners appeared at Viareggio, along with many from 1982 such as Dino Zoff, Fulvio Collovati, Paolo Rossi, Gabriele Oriali, Bruno Conti and Gaetano Scirea. That small list does not include great Italian players that appeared at the tournament, but that did not win the World Cup, like Paolo Maldini, Sandro Mazzola and Giacinto Facchetti.
Top foreign stars have also made their names here – Sepp Maier, Uwe Seeler and Gabriel Batistuta all appeared, while current stars Bastian Schweinsteiger (in 2002) and Edinson Cavani (2006) were at Viareggio not too long ago. Which player will make their first move towards greatness this year?