By Steve Mitchell
On May 27th theToulon Tournament kicks off in France showcasing some the world’s best young footballers.
The competition has become an established part of the summer football calendar as countries from all over the globe are invited to the south of France to take part in a two week celebration of football at under 21 level.
Originally devised in 1967 the “Festival Espoirs de Toulon” was open only to club sides when Sporting Club Toulon had a few talented players who needed to gain some experience playing against foreign players of the same age. The tournament founder,Maurice Revello, looked to Italy for inspiration noticing how successful the Viareggio Youth Championships were in the peninsula so he devised a competition to replicate this in Toulon.
Seven years later, the head of the French football federation Fernand Sastre, decided to open the competition to countries rather than clubs in the hope that players would gain tournament experience that would benefit the national side in years to come. Sastre was proved right as France won the European Championships on home soil in 1984 with a squad comprised of seven players who had their first taste of international football at the Toulon tournament.
The French team that claimed victory in the 1998 World Cup, also played on home soil and the European Championships in 2000, consisted of 14 players who had made their international debuts at Toulon.
A look down the list of players who have participated at this summer soccer festival reads like a who’s who of football – Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alan Shearer, Javier Mascherano, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Nuno Gomes and Rui Costa to name just a few who gained invaluable experience in the south of France.
The competition format is simple, 10 countries divided into two groups of five with the top two of each group going through to the final at the StadeMeyon on the 7th of June. The runners up in each group will contest a third place play-off at the same venue before the final itself. The 10 countries participating in this year’s tournament are:
France (Host Nation), Costa Rica, Netherlands, Qatar, USA
China, England, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Morocco
As host nation, France has an outstanding record at the tournament clinching the title on 11 occasions and taking the runners up berth 12 times. Last year, Les Bleus were humiliated 5-2 in the final by Brazil and they will be anxious to erase the memory of that painful defeat this time around. After the hosts, Mexico are the team competing this year who have the most appearances being invited to participate on 20 separate occasions but they had to wait until 2012 to finally lift the trophy for what remains their only victory.
England have been invited to the competition 15 times, winning it on four occasions and being runners up twice. Last year they finished in 4th place after losing the third place match to Portugal. Surprisingly the Netherlands, having also been regular visitors to the tournament, are yet to get their hands on the trophy. One of their opponents in the group phase, the USA achieved a third place finish back in 1989 and China will start at Toulon for a tenth time this year, their best placed finish was runner up in 2007.
Qatar are welcomed back for a third occasion with the country still looking to record a win in the competition finishing last year’s competition with a minus 10 goal difference. We also have a tournament debutant this year with Costa Rica hoping their youngsters can replicate the success of the full national team at last year’s World Cup Finals in Brazil. 2010 champions the Ivory Coast, will be strongly fancied in Group B and their African counterparts Morocco will hope to improve on a dismal showing last time they were invited in 2012.
Toulon has been an important stepping stone for some of the greatest players to ever grace a football field, what future stars will be uncovered at the 2015 edition?