Adrian Šemper and Filip Benković both came up through the ranks at Dinamo Zagreb and are now playing in the UEFA Champions League: they speak to UEFA.com about their rises.
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They came through the ranks together at Dinamo Zagreb from the age of six and now Adrian Šemper and Filip Benković are UEFA Champions League regulars.
The teenaged duo even negotiated three rounds of qualifying to reach the group stage, where they face Sevilla on Tuesday in Group H. Šemper, at 18 one of the youngest UEFA Champions League goalkeepers ever, and 19-year-old defender Benković spoke to UEFA.com about graduating from the stands to the pitch, their friendship, and not being too big to play with old mates.
UEFA.com: How did your football story begin?
Adrian Šemper: Well, the whole story started when I was six. My sister registered me for the Dinamo academy. I started first as an outfield player, then the coach put me in goal. And I've stayed there ever since.
Filip Benković: It all started when I joined Dinamo when I was five, five and a half. I came through the ranks here, playing for every team. What can I say? I live very near the stadium and right from the off I have tried to help the club, which I'm still doing today.
UEFA.com: What are your earliest memories of that time?
Šemper: I remember we went to many tournaments abroad, in Germany and Austria, and won them all. I was nine or ten at the time. I will always cherish those memories.
Benković: I can't really remember my early days, but I do remember it always being fun. Ever since I started playing, football has been what I've most enjoyed doing – playing made me happy. Now it's a job, everything has become a bit more serious.
UEFA.com: Did you also support Dinamo?
Benković: Of course. I used to sit in the stands with the fans, the north stand. I remember some great matches against the likes of Werder Bremen and Arsenal. I was in the north stand and saw some great matches and great victories down the years.
Šemper: I love Dinamo. Dinamo will always prevail! I grew up in Zagreb and I've been a Dinamo fan since I was born. I've seen almost all Dinamo's matches.
UEFA.com: Adrian, against Juventus you had the chance to face Gianluigi Buffon. How did that feel?
Šemper: A feeling I cannot describe. To stand beside him, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, one of my heroes ... I'm lost for words to describe that feeling. Definitely something to remember for the rest of my life.
UEFA.com: Do you know he made his debut in the UEFA Champions League before you were even born?
Šemper: It's a big deal. I am well aware of that and proud of it. It's a great motivation for me to strive to improve myself. There's still a long road ahead for me. And I get to learn from such a great goalkeeper.
UEFA.com: Filip, at 19 you've already got big-game experience under your belt. What was it like when you broke into the first team? What sort of emotions did you feel?
Benković: It was a fantastic feeling. It's every boy from Zagreb's dream to play for Dinamo, so of course it was very emotional. I was happy and I knew it was a reward for all my efforts.
But, of course, I must not stop here; I have to work three times as hard to keep kicking on.
UEFA.com: But one day you’re playing against Juventus and the likes of Gonzalo Higuaín, and the next day you’re hanging out with your old friends …
Benković: I wouldn't say I am 'the man'. I still lead a normal life, I hang out with friends, I go to the school playground to play basketball. I would say everything is the same. I socialise with my friends just like a normal person.
UEFA.com: Adrian, one of the most important aspects of your game is your mental strength. How do you work on that?
Šemper: I dedicate a lot of time to it with the sports psychologist. I know it's very important and it's important for me to stay calm in every situation. It's a very important factor in football.
I have some rituals where I talk to him for a few minutes and he gives me advice. It calms me down mentally and helps me focus better.
UEFA.com: And a last question for both of you – you came through the ranks together, so are you good friends?
Benković: We played together in the youth teams, so we know each other well. We've got a great rapport, we support each other in training and in matches.
We hang out. We get on both on the pitch and off of it – we're friends.
Šemper: It's a big thing and I'm happy to have him in front of me because we're both very motivated and we want to show what we can do. It's easier for us when we're both in the team. It means a lot to us. We know we can support each other.