By Mike Woitalla
Here's a few glimpses into the childhoods of players starring at the European Championship:
BASTIAN SCHWEINSTEIGER (Germany). The midfielder, who set up both goals in Germany’s 2-1 win over the Netherlands, hails from the Bavarian town of Kolbermoor -- also the birthplace of former Bayern Munich star and 1974 world champion Paul Breitner. Schweinsteiger joined Bayern Munich’s youth program at age 14.
“As I child, I thought I would be either a skier or a soccer player,” said Schweinsteiger, whose older brother, Tobias, was a three-time youth national runner-up in skiing and later played third division soccer. “When I got the offer from Bayern I had to make quick decision.”
He told GQ.com, “I thought, first of all, you don’t freeze as much. And second of all, you don’t need to carry around so much equipment or get up so early in the morning.”
Schweinsteiger debuted for Bayern Munich’s first team at age 18 in a Champions League game in 2002 and earned his first cap for Germany at age 19.
ANDRES INIESTA (Spain). The midfielder who scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final grew up in the small town of Fuentealbilla near Albacete and at age 12 moved 260 miles northeast to join Barcelona.
“Iniesta was a sensitive, considerate boy -- shy but always willing to help others,” said Albert Benaiges, the coordinator of Barcelona's youth teams.
Iniesta suffered from severe homesickness and his parents visited as often as possible.
“He was very close to his family and every goodbye each weekend would become a mini-drama,” Benaiges said. “Andres would be crying and he spent a lot of time at my house, and whenever my mother sees him smiling now she always makes a joke, because she remembers how much he suffered in those days.”
Iniesta said his dreams of reaching the big stage kept him motivated while he lived at La Masia.
“You would look out and there was the Nou Camp stadium opposite,” he said. “It was always on your mind, that the goal was to play there.”
ANDRIY SHEVCHENKO (Ukraine). Already a Ukraine legend, the 35-year-old scored both goals in the host nation's 2-1 comeback win over Sweden.
Shevchenko was born 60 miles north of Kiev in the village of Dvirkivshchyna when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. His mother was a kindergarten teacher and his father served as a captain in a Red Army tank regiment.
At age 9, in 1986, because of the nuclear disaster in nearby Chernobyl, he was evacuated with his schoolmates to the Sea of Azov.
“We kind of knew what happened,” said Shevchenko. “But we were not told right away. It was kept secret.”
Four weeks before the Chernobyl meltdown he had signed with youth program of Dynamo Kiev, which he joined after spending the summer at the sea, even though a soccer career wasn’t the first choice his father, Nikolaj, imagined for his son.
"My parents left the choice to me, they never said, 'Do this, do that.' They said it's best you choose," said Andriy.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper, and More Than Goals with Claudio Reyna. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)