As my wife’s Florentine Nana use to insist: “Italy is the garden of Europe, Tuscany is the garden of Italy and Viareggio is the queen of Versilia.” She wasn’t wrong. This exquisite seaside town on the Versilia coast of Tuscany, apart from being renowned for its magnificent beaches and glorious backdrop of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, hosts its world renewed Carnival. During month-long festivities, Viareggio and the surrounding region of Lucca plays host to the highly prestigious ‘Coppa Carnevale’, which this year holds its 67th edition. The Viareggio Cup World Football Tournament, to give it its full name, is a historic competition for clubs featuring players between 17 to 21 years and runs from February 2 to 16.
The tournament this year involves 32 youth teams from Italy and abroad who are divided into eight groups of four, that take part in a mini-League stage before the top two from each group enter into knockout rounds.
Many of Italy’s top clubs enter but strangely, following a highly successful run of wins - six out the last 12 competitions - Juventus have not sent a side in 2015. The sentiments are that Fabio Grosso’s Primavera side is not good enough to enter. Stranger still when you consider they have also reached the semi-final of the Primavera Cup, ironically meeting Lazio, another successful side in the past, who are also not sending a side.
Meanwhile Milan, after winning the title last season for a record ninth time, bring a team under the aegis of former Milan midfielder Cristian Brocchi. Last year’s Coach Pippo Inzaghi has stepped up several levels and was promoted up to the first team after impressing owner Silvio Berlusconi with his winning ways with the Primavera.
However, whoever turn up, the Carnival Cup is a celebrated slice of footballing history and, like Pippo, it has been the staging post for many Coaches. For example Cesar Prandelli (Atalanta), Mauro Tassotti (Milan), Franco Baresi (Milan) and Andrea Stramaccioni (Inter) all started their careers there. The town even has noted residents like Marcello Lippi and even referee Pierluigi Collina, who cut some of their teeth in the Stadio Del Pini, home of the tournament and local club Viareggio, who play in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione.
Past players who have appeared include such notables as Roberto Bettega, Franco Causio, Giancarlo Antognoni, Gaetano Scirea, Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti, Alex Del Piero and Mario Balotelli, to name just a few. Stranieri like Uve Seeler, Gabriel Batistuta and Edinson Cavani have all played in Viareggio with younger stars like Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, Schalke’s Julian Draxler and Paris Saint-Germain’s former Roma defender Marquinhos also appearing there.
Several of the above have been players of the tournament but only recently has there been a prize for the best young talent in the tournament. The Golden Boy award voted on by a jury of former players and journalists is usually a signpost for those who go on to bigger and brighter stages. Last year it was won by Parma’s Alberto Cerri, while the year before Milan’s up-and-coming midfielder Bryan Cristante lifted it. Back in 2010 Ciro Immobile won it becoming the first Juve player to do so, and he has since become a major player in Europe.
Amongst clubs the majority of winners have naturally been Italian but foreign outfits like the legendary Dukla Prague side of the 1960s won it six times while Sparta Prague, Partizan Belgrade and Uruguay’s Juventud, who beat Juventus in 2006, have also won the trophy.
Representing Italy this year are 21 teams - Atalanta, Cesena, Empoli, Fiorentina, Genoa, Verona, Inter, Milan, Napoli, Palermo, Parma, Roma, Torino, Bari, Bologna, Livorno, Pescara, Spezia, Vicenza, Cremonese and a side representing Serie D.
Meanwhile the 11 foreign sides are Bruges (Belgium), Genk (Belgium), Nordsjaelland (Denmark), PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands) Belgrano (Argentina), Santos Laguna (Mexico), L.I.A.C. New York (USA), A.P.I.A. Leichhardt (Australia), Salitas (Burkina Faso), Pro Duta (Indonesia) and Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan).
One of the favourites has to be Milan who have a ‘future captain’, in midfielder Manuel Locatelli plus Under-19 international striker Davide Di Molfetta. Then of course semi-locals Fiorentina need to be taken into account after winning it eight times. Roma, who top their Primavera section, are also in with a shout. Meanwhile, out of the foreign challengers the Netherlands’ PSV have produced many outstanding footballers while Argentinean side Belgrano could be one of the dark horses. Whoever wins it there is no doubt that several of the starlets that will illuminate this season’s tournament will go on to enlighten the world stage later on in their careers.