It was the fledgling franchise’s first friendly.
The city of Viareggio is nestled on the coast of Tuscany, more famous for its gastronomic pleasures than its football, yet for the last 70 years, the Viareggio Cup has attracted the best youth players from Italy and the world.
This tournament has hosted players who have gone on to become World Cup winners, superstars and household names.
But why would an Under-19 tournament in an Italian tourist destination be of interest to Australians? Well, former NSL powerhouse and current NPL premiers APIA Leichhardt are participating in the tournament this year for the 15th time.
APIA’s heritage is well-known; along with Marconi they contested many a fierce Italian derby during the halcyon days of the National Soccer League, their Lambert Park headquarters overflowing onto Marion Street whenever the two great rivals clashed.
APIA have always kept an eye on youth development, forging a passage for young local talent to make it into their senior NPL set-up and beyond. Competing in the Viareggio Cup is seen as a vital learning curve for the youth team, as they test their prowess against some of the best players from Europe.
They are the only club side from Asia invited to compete and the 2018 side has been prepared and coached by former Parramatta FC first grade coach Franco ‘Cossie’ Cosentino, assisted by Jonathon Keppie.
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Cossie was working with the squad for months prior to their departure and he is enthusiastic about his players competing against a tough pool consisting of Inter Milan, Parma and Nania.
With a keen eye for local talent and a wealth of knowledge honed by many years working with Under-18 and Under-20 teams, Cossie is back doing what he enjoys most – developing young players for the rigours of life in first grade.
From his squad of 21, he has highlighted Luca Kmet, Leandro Guzman, Nick Azzone and Sam Paslis as players who have the potential to shine.
Neither coach is under any illusion as to the toughness of the task in Tuscany. As one of 40 teams in the tournament, they will be competing against sides who train and play full-time, some of whom have already tasted life in Serie A or other European competitions. But they are both optimistic that being tested against such quality can only be a good thing for their squad, along with the experience of living and training as full-time footballers for the duration of the tournament.
In an era where questions are asked about the apparent drop in standards and results for the Young Socceroos and Olyroos, it is refreshing to see that clubs outside the A-League are still concerned with the development of their talented juniors.
APIA Leichhardt’s participation in Torneo Di Viareggio deserves more recognition.