Premature move for Swiss prodigy Ben Khalifa?

October 7, 2010

SOCCER-EUROPE/SWITZERLANDThe Swiss Super League is certainly not the strongest in the world but it’s a fairly safe bet to say that it beats the German fourth division. So why has 18-year-old Nassim Ben Khalifa, one of Switzerland’s most exciting prospects, swapped the former for the latter?

Last year, Ben Khalifa hit the headlines when he led the attack in the Swiss team which surprised everyone by winning the world under-17 championship in Nigeria.

He was runner-up in the vote for the best player of the tournament and also scored four goals. Back home, he was a regular first-team player in his debut professional season for Grasshoppers, scoring eight goals as he helped them finish third in the table.

In the midst of all this, German Bundesliga outfit VfL Wolfsburg stepped him and snapped him up for the 2010-2011 season. Yet they appear to have little intention of fielding him any time soon. Ben Khalifa told Swiss media this week that he is fifth or sixth in the strikers’ pecking order and would have to fight for his place with Edin Dzeko and Grafite, the two players who have topped the Bundesliga scoring charts in the last two seasons.

For the time being, this means that Ben Khalifa is turning out for the reserve team VfL Wolfsburg II, who play in Regional League North, the fourth tier of German professional football. This has also had a knock-on effect with his Switzerland career — having made his full international debut against Austria in August, Ben Khalifa will be with the under-21 team this weekend rather than travelling with the seniors for the Euro 2012 qualifier in Montenegro.

Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld says he made the decision due to Ben Khalifa’s lack of match practice.

It hardly seems like a move forward. Yet the story is typical of many promising young players from Latin America, Africa and the smaller European nations. They move abroad to a bigger league in their late teens, get shunted into the reserves and are barely heard of again.

Often, they simply end up returning home after a few years with their reputations shattered and their potential greatly diminished. At best, they become ordinary league professionals.

Take Ben Khalifa’s compatriot Johan Vonlanthen. At Euro 2004, he became the youngest player to score at the European championship but since then he has been shunted from club to club with spells at PSV Eindhoven, NAC Breda, Brescia, Salzburg and FC Zurich. He did not even make the World Cup squad this year.

One player who recently avoided the temptation was 18-year-old striker Neymar, who decided to stay with Brazilian club Santos instead of moving to Chelsea. Perhaps Ben Khalifa should have done the same thing.

PHOTO: Grasshopper Club’s (GC) Nassim Ben Khalifa challenges Stephane Sarni (R) of FC Sion during their Swiss Super League soccer match in Zurich March 17, 2010. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

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