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From Youth League to Champions League: the stars’ verdict

Each season, the UEFA Youth League provides a platform for Europe’s best Under-19 talents to demonstrate their ability on a European stage. We asked several stars why so many of the competition’s ‘veterans’ go on to make the grade in the Champions League.

UEFA Youth League graduates Marcus Rashford and Presnel Kimpembe battle for the ball  in the UEFA Champions League
UEFA Youth League graduates Marcus Rashford and Presnel Kimpembe battle for the ball in the UEFA Champions League Getty Images

The UEFA Youth League returned this week after a five-month break owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Action resumed with two round of 16 ties at Colovray Stadium, Nyon, a short walk from UEFA’s Swiss headquarters and the venue for all remaining games in the competition.

Since its inception in 2013, the Youth League has provided a platform for the stars of tomorrow to test their skills against Europe’s best Under-19 talents, offering unique international experience and competition while reducing the gap between clubs’ youth and senior teams.

A number of well-established football stars from different football clubs and cultures are united in identifying their appearances in the Youth League as a key stepping stone on the path to senior success.

Presnel Kimpembe: France international defender who is preparing for a Champions League final with Paris Saint-Germain

“Honestly, they were great experiences. It was a mini Champions League for young players and it was great for us to be able to play such a tournament. It made us dream because we knew that the real Champions League was played after us.

“It was a magnificent experience, a beautiful experience and it prepared us for things to come.”

Mason Mount: England international, Youth League winner and Champions League participant with Chelsea

“That was a totally different feeling. You know you’re coming up against other teams that are top, top teams, so they’re different, bigger games when you’re playing against these teams and getting ready for them. Then, obviously, when you move up to the semi-final and final, that’s when you go away, the focus starts and it’s a massive game. You’re playing in front of loads of people who you don’t normally get a chance to play in front of; all the cameras are there and I think it’s that first taste of what can be in a couple of years.

“All of it together: travelling, playing against these top teams, it all gets you ready and even more focused and motivated to want to step up to that next big stage.”

Joao Felix celebrates after scoring for Benfica in the Youth League
Joao Felix celebrates after scoring for Benfica in the Youth LeagueGetty Images

Joao Felix: former Benfica youngster now with another Champions League club, Atlético

“We played against big teams, with players that are now playing in the Champions League, in the first team, and are some of the first names on the team sheet. It was a competition that we always wanted to win, we always strove to do so - unfortunately we didn't achieve it - but it helped us grow a lot, we learned a lot from that competition.”

Marcus Rashford: England and Manchester United forward

“That tournament is a good tournament. That’s probably the [closest] thing you get before you play in the big Champions League, so I think that’s good for the academy boys to keep doing that system. They get to play the best teams all around the world, and that’s what it’s about, playing the best and hopefully beating the best, and that’s how you improve.”

Lorenzo Pellegrini: Italy international midfielder who featured in the competition for Roma

“It was a fantastic experience because when you’re in the Primavera [U-19] side you don’t get these high-profile opportunities, so often the rhythm and intensity in Primavera games were quite low, nowhere near the level of professional football.

“I think playing in the Youth League helped a lot of guys like me to make the next step up, because the intensity and quality were more like proper football.

“There are better players in the UEFA Youth League compared to the Primavera championship. Whichever way you look at it, the Youth League is the Champions League for Primavera sides, so evidently it’s a more select group. The teams are better prepared, so as a result the matches, how you get ready for them, how you line up, the intensity, the quality -it’s all at a higher standard.”

Callum Hudson-Odoi  leads the celebrations after netting against FC Porto in 2018
Callum Hudson-Odoi leads the celebrations after netting against FC Porto in 2018Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Callum Hudson-Odoi: England and Chelsea winger who lifted the Youth League trophy

“You play against teams from all around the world that you wouldn’t always play against because normally you only play against teams in England or just in and around England, so to get the opportunity to play against teams from Spain, Italy, Germany, wherever it is, it’s a massive feeling.

“You’re going through rounds and you’re going through stages, like the group stage, where you have to compete against teams home and away. It’s a feeling that you don’t normally get; it’s building you up to the stage where you go into first-team football, where you have the opportunity to go home and away as well and perform on a big stage. Every moment of it was enjoyable. I feel that the Youth League really helped all of us to get to where we are now.”

Ruben Dias: Portuguese international defender and a product of Benfica’s academy

“In the beginning, it was the simple pleasure of playing football and then it became like the Champions League or the [FIFA] World Cup. And when you have the opportunity, in the Under-19 team, to have your very own Champions League and you get to train with a Champions League ball mid-week, I don’t know what’s it like for other people but for me that meant a lot.

“Sometimes, during those three, four days, that was all it was, we could train with the Champions League ball and feel like we were playing a sort of mini Champions League, it’s powerful.

“It definitely gives you more encouragement to work because it’s a dream and you start getting a taste of that dream early on. And then you have the competitive aspect of it all which is definitely very beneficial to everybody.”

Alex Iwobi: Nigeria international, Arsenal academy graduate and current Everton winger

“It taught me quite a bit, because you’re not only playing against English teams, you’re playing against foreign teams and you’re learning their tactics and how they play. Yes, it was such an experience for me, because obviously when I stepped into the first team, it almost felt the same, even though the level is a bit higher, but there’s the same organisation, the preparations are almost the same. So, it did prepare me for when I was involved with the first team.

“It helped me, and I’m sure it helps others, to feel like you’re in the Champions League as well, even though it’s just the youth level. It’s still a very high competition. And for us at Under-19s, the games are very hard, and you do learn. So, it’s always a learning experience for the youngsters.”

All UEFA Youth League fixtures can be found here, with games shown live on UEFA.tv and by selected broadcast partners.