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Euro 2008 Countdown: The New Wave
by Paul Kennedy, February 4th, 2008 6:32PM

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TAGS:  european championship


A new generation of stars is set to take over European soccer. Here's a look at some of the young players who could play key roles at the 2008 European Championship.

RYAN BABEL (Netherlands).

At Dutch club Ajax, the search for young players is intensive.

Babel was 11 when he attended his first Ajax tryout camp and 12 when he was taken into his hometown club.

Comfortable on both wings, Babel fit right in. Ajax is a firm proponent of wide play in its 4-3-3 system, and Babel made his first-team debut only two months after his 17th birthday.

Babel was only 19 when Coach Marco Van Basten took him with the Netherlands to the 2006 World Cup.

Van Basten has called the lanky Babel "the next Thierry Henry," a heavy burden on a player who had still scored only 14 league goals for Ajax when he was transferred to Liverpool last summer for $22 million.

Seventeen of Babel's first 30 appearances for Reds have been off the bench, but the 21-year-old Dutchman has already scored seven goals.

Babel led the Netherlands to last year's European under-21 title that qualified it for the 2008 Olympics, but he was primarily used off the bench during the Oranje's Euro '08 qualifying campaign.

Dutch forwards Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie both have had persistent injury problems, so Babel could play a prominent role at Euro '08.

KARIM BENZEMA (France).

Some time before his contract expires in 2012, Benzema will probably leave Lyon on a transfer fee that could top $60 million, but four years ago he almost got away for free.

Benzema, who signed with Lyon's poussins (under-9s), had been at Lyon for so long that the club forgot to get around to signing him to a binding contract.

Lyon almost dropped Benzema after his season with the under-15s - he was slow and lacked commitment - but he took off the next year, scoring 38 goals with the under-16s, and was signed to an apprentice's contract the next year before foreign clubs could step in and sign him. Four times since then, Benzema has had his contract re-worked.

Benzema is the most promising forward French soccer has ever produced. That's saying a lot when you consider that in the last decade alone France has produced Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, David Trezeguet, Djibril Cisse and Louis Saha, but Benzema's stats beat those of all of them at the same age.

Benzema, who turned 20 in December, led the French First Division this season with 13 goals through 21 games.

Lyon teammate Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri of Marseille and Benzema form a trio of young attacking stars, all of North African origin, whose success has reinforced France's reputation as the best producer of young talent in Europe.

DINIYAR BILYALETDINOV (Russia).

The 22-year-old Bilyaletdinov is considered the most skillful player Russia has produced in a generation.

The son of former Soviet international Rinat Bilyaletdinov, Diniyar began playing soccer as a youth in the Czech Republic, where his father finished his playing career. He joined Lokomotiv Moscow when his father joined the club's youth system as a coach, and he immediately stood out because of his strong left foot.

He joined Lokomtiv's first team at 19 in 2004 and was named Russia's Young Player of the Year the same year after helping Lokomotiv win the league title for only the second time in its history.

Bilyaletdinov played a key role in Russia's qualifying campaign. He started in the 2-1 win over England in Moscow. He scored the only Russian goal in the 2-1 loss at Israel that appeared to doom the Russians to third place behind England. And he assisted on Dmitri Sychev's goal that gave Russia a 1-0 win over Andorra and second place when England fell to Croatia, 3-2, on the final day of qualiying.

There was talk of Bilyaletdinov moving to Chelsea over the January transfer window, but he wants to wait until next summer's transfer window - after Euro '08 - to consider a move abroad.

MARIO GOMEZ (Germany).

Born in Riedlingen to a Spanish father and German mother, Gomez is the most exciting star to emerge on the German national team since the 2006 World Cup.

"Super Mario" was having a spectacular year for Stuttgart in its run to the 2007 Bundesliga title before a knee injury sidelined him for most of the spring.

He returned on the next-to-last game of the season and scored the equalizer with his first touch of the ball in a 3-2 win over Bochum that put Stuttgart ahead for good.

The 2007 German Player of the Year finished with 14 goals in 25 games last season and has already scored seven in his first 12 games this season.

Gomez's injury quieted talk of a move abroad, at least for the time being, and he re-signed with Stuttgart through the 2011-12 season.

GOKHAN INLER (Switzerland).

Inler's stock has soared following a breakout season at Italian club Udinese, fifth at the halfway point of the 2007-8 Serie A season.

The 23-year-old midfielder has impressed Serie A experts with his work rate and savvy and was named the top signing of last summer's transfer window.

Inler's career has been tumultuous. By the time he was 21, he had played for four pro clubs - Solothurn, Basel, Fenerbahce in Turkey and Aarau - before breaking through at FC Zurich two years ago.

Born to Turkish parents, Inler played on league championship teams in his two seasons at Zurich and earned a call-up to the Swiss national team.

In Switzerland's best game in its series of warmups to the final, the Euro '08 co-host beat the Netherlands, 2-1. Inler was outstanding in a midfield that included no player older than 24.

CIPRIAN MARICA (Romania).

With Mario Gomez unavailable for most of the second half of the 2006-07 season with a knee injury, Stuttgart needed backup for the 2007-08 season and paid a club record $10 million for Marica, who was playing with Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine.

"Ciprian is a very flexible forward, and a permanent thorn in the side of any opposing defense, who fits outstandingly into our team," said Stuttgart sporting director Horst Heldt.

Marica was 16 when he debuted for Dinamo Bucharest and 18 when he made his first national team appearance.

Romania failed to qualify for the last two World Cups and Euro 2004 but won its group, ahead of the Netherlands and Bulgaria, to clinch a berth in the Euro '08 finals.

Marica was Romania's second leading scorer with five goals in 11 games.

LUKA MODRIC (Croatia).

The 2007 game of the year took place last November at Wembley, where Croatia beat England, 3-2, to deny the hosts a place at Euro '08. The English press was stunned by the outcome.

"I read in your papers that no Croatian would start in the England team," said Croatia coach Slaven Bilic, himself a former EPL defender. "That's ridiculous. Wake up!"

Indeed.

With players like Modric, 22, Manchester City's Vedran Corluka, 21, Portsmouth's Niko Kranjcar, 23, and Schalke 04's Ivan Rakitic, 19, Croatia has one of the most promising young teams in Europe.

Modric was born in Croatia but began his career with Bosnia's Zrinjski Mostar and Inter Zapresic in Croatia before joining Dinamo Croatia in 2005.

Modric, who made two brief appearances off the bench for Croatia at the 2006 World Cup, is considered one of the most versatile midfielders in Europe. He plays as a playmaker for Dinamo but can also play on the left side and is comfortable taking on a more defensive posture.

Dinamo president Zdravko Mamic declined a move during the January transfer window with the hope that he could get $50 million for Modric in the summer.

BAKARY SAGNA (France).

Sagna was hardly a household name when he joined Arsenal from Auxerre last summer for $10 million, but he has stepped right in at right back for the Gunners and been one of the key reasons why they are challenging for the Premier League title.

Sagna, who was born in France to Senegalese parents, credits Arsenal's large contingent of French and African-French players for his quick adaptation.

"Abou [Diaby] played with me at Auxerre," says the 24-year-old Sagna. "I met Gael [Clichy] and Mathieu [Flamini] with the French under-21s."

Sagna's strong play earned him a call-up to the French national team, and he could take over at right back in place of the aging Willy Sagnol at Euro '08.

ARDA TURAN (Turkey).

Breaking into the first team at one of Istanbul's big three - Galatasaray, Fenerbahce or Besiktas - isn't easy these days, and Arda could have sulked when Galatasaray, the club he had joined at the age of 12, shipped him off to Vestel Manisaspor in 2005.

Maniaspor was just breaking into the Super Lïg, the top level of Turkish soccer, but Arda blossomed there.

When he returned in 2006-07 for his first full season with Galatasaray's first team, he stood out on the left wing and attracted the attention of big clubs in Italy and England.

Arda, 21, also won a starting job in midfield for Turkey, which won its qualifying group.

MIGUEL VELOSO (Portugal).

Lisbon soccer fans are split into two camps - those who support Benfica and those who follow Sporting - so Miguel Veloso's decision to leave Benfica, the club at which his father, the former Portuguese international Antonio Veloso, played for Sporting at the age of 15 created quite a stir.

While his decision was based on Sporting's superior reputation for producing young talent, it was on loan to third-level Lisbon club Olivais e Moscavide in 2005-06 that Miguel Veloso's game developed quickly.

He returned to Sporting last season and won a starting job in midfield. By the end of Euro '08 qualifying, the 21-year-old Miguel Veloso was starting alongside veteran Maniche in Portugal's midfield.

(This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

 



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