Gotze, upsets and equality: Austria's indoor talent factory

Austrian town of Scharding hosts ever-expanding indoor youth tournament U-15 competition pits some of Europe's top teams against minnows Mario Gotze, Serge Gnabry and Xherdan Shaqiri once featured in the competition

Valencia’s U-15 team have just scored on the narrow indoor pitch at the sports complex in the Austrian town of Scharding. The goalscorer wheels away in celebration with his team-mates to appreciative applause from the packed-out stands, while in the background the Liverpool and...

Austrian town of Scharding hosts ever-expanding indoor youth tournament U-15 competition pits some of Europe's top teams against minnows Mario Gotze, Serge Gnabry and Xherdan Shaqiri once featured in the competition

Valencia’s U-15 ᴛᴇᴀᴍ ʜᴀᴠᴇ ᴊᴜsᴛ scᴏʀed ᴏɴ tʜᴇ narʀᴏᴡ ɪɴᴅᴏᴏʀ pɪᴛch ᴀᴛ tʜᴇ spᴏʀts complex ɪɴ tʜᴇ Aᴜstriᴀɴ tᴏᴡɴ ᴏꜰ Scʜᴀʀᴅɪɴg. Tʜᴇ ɢᴏalscᴏʀer wʜᴇels aᴡᴀʏ ɪɴ celebrᴀᴛiᴏɴ wɪᴛh ʜɪs ᴛᴇᴀᴍ-mᴀᴛes ᴛᴏ appreciᴀᴛive applaᴜse ꜰʀᴏᴍ tʜᴇ packed-ᴏᴜᴛ stᴀɴds, ᴡʜɪʟᴇ ɪɴ tʜᴇ ʙᴀᴄᴋɢʀᴏᴜɴᴅ tʜᴇ Liverpool ᴀɴd Bᴏʀᴜssia Dᴏʀtmund yᴏᴜᴛh ᴛᴇᴀᴍs prepᴀʀᴇ ꜰᴏʀ tʜᴇir ɢᴀᴍᴇs ᴀɴd tʜᴇ ɢᴏal ɪs streaᴍᴇd ʟɪᴠᴇ ᴏɴ YouTuʙᴇ.

There are a number of similarly high-quality indoor tournaments across Europe in winter, but this one - staged with great passion on the border between Austria and Germany - is extra special: Valencia scored their goal against SpVgg GW Deggendorf, who came through a qualifying event to book their place at the tournament proper in the first week of January, at which the U-15 teams of numerous prestigious professional clubs from Austria, Germany, England, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Spain and Norway took part.

The fact that teams can keep such elite company via a qualifying tournament is by no means unique, but in Scharding there are places for no fewer than five lesser-known sides to participate in an unforgettable experience, making it highly unusual.

Scharding, the U-15 tournament where the small challenge the big
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“That’s what puts the spice in football,” said tournament organiser Johannes Fesel, who has held the role for almost three decades, in an interview with FIFA.com. “It’s just like in the cup, it’s David against Goliath. It’s something that appeals to everyone, it’s what our football is all about - giving grassroots teams the chance to test themselves against the very best.”

Given the tendency for large youth academies to only play matches among themselves, such tournaments and matches are genuine highlights - and there is no dip in quality. “There’s been a lot of praise for the teams that came through qualifying in recent years,” the 52-year-old continued. “Liverpool losing 1-0 to Winterthur, that’s what football’s all about.”

In light of such a backdrop, it is no wonder that clubs travel several hundred kilometres to participate in qualifying tournaments. Every team, right from those down in the lowest division, dreams of one day getting the better of the bigger clubs.

This year, as in previous years, that is exactly what happened. Swiss side Winterthur progressed to the knockout rounds at the expense of the reigning UEFA Champions League winners’ U-15s, while Bavarian outfit Deggendorf gave a good account of themselves in a 3-0 defeat to Valencia before ending the group stage with four points on the board.

“I’ve known about the tournament since 2007,” said Marco Otero, technical director of Valencia’s youth academy. “I was there with Basel and Grasshopper Zurich. It’s a good experience for the boys.” It is hardly surprising, then, that some big names have previously graced the pitches there: Mario Gotze, for example, who scored the winner at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™.

What began as a normal grassroots indoor tournament to mark the 40th anniversary of host club Union Esternberg has ballooned over the years into an ever-growing event. In the beginning there were “a lot of phone calls and a couple of faxes”, said Fesel. “I would get phone bills that ran to several thousand Schillings.” Professional clubs from the surrounding area were involved initially, before word reached increasing numbers of youth academies of the special environment in Scharding; the fantastic atmosphere, the steep stands and the matches pitting bigger teams against smaller ones.

With the tournament set to celebrate its 30th anniversary in January 2021, Fesel already has some ideas for next year’s edition: “I hope Bayern Munich will come and maybe a couple of new faces too, for example from the USA or Sweden.”