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new outlets Kevin Zefi is blazing a trail to Italy for Irish kids to follow in move to Inter Milan

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Kevin Zefi in action at Turner's Cross in Cork during Ireland's UEFA U-17 Championship Qualifying campaign. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Kevin Zefi in action at Turner's Cross in Cork during Ireland's UEFA U-17 Championship Qualifying campaign. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Kevin Zefi in action at Turner's Cross in Cork during Ireland's UEFA U-17 Championship Qualifying campaign. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

The Manchester United-Leeds United tie, to be played next weekend, was once a fixture where Irish accents dominated – Keane v Keane and Irwin versus Kelly – but no longer do so.

Time has moved on, and Irish football has other outlets, new fields of dreams. Hence the focus later this month on the Milan derby in the Italian youth league system where, if things fall into place, Corkman Cathal Heffernan will don the red and black of AC Milan, opposing an Inter side which has Dubliner Kevin Zefi (16) as a key player.

“Having a player at Inter and AC Milan can only be good for Irish football,” says former international Stephen Carr, now living in Spain where one of his interests is acting as an adviser to former Shamrock Rovers man Zefi and his family, as he foresees further ‘Kevin Zefis’.

“Kevin has opened a door that was always closed. Italians are now asking, have we been a bit blind to this, to Irish talent? You’ll never have as many Irish players in Italy as we’ve had in England over the years, it will be a small group, but there will be more to come.

“I know there are a lot of Italian agents in Ireland now, trying to sign Irish players, which never happened before. Because England is closed off at 16, with Brexit, you have clubs and agents in Italy, Germany and Holland looking at Irish players, England is closed off but there are different opportunities now.

“It’s a compliment to the set-up in Ireland that you have Italian clubs willing to buy Irish players, that’s never happened before. Liam Brady and Robbie Keane went to Italy, but they didn’t go from Ireland. Seeing Kevin, [James] Abankwah and [Cathal] Heffernan going to Italy is a great testament to Irish football, it’s not a negative.”

Zefi’s road to Milan involves different stops along the way. There was almost a diversion to Holland. “He was meant to go to PSV, a week before Covid kicked in, and the English clubs were very interested in him but that was not going to happen with Brexit. Inter Milan wanted him and wanted to get it done quick, he enjoyed being over there and he went with it,” says Carr.

Zefi moved over last summer but is still at the settling-in phase.

Family and access to education are close at hand, as his Albanian family moved over from Dublin to Italy to be close to him, but clubs like Inter Milan are serious about what they want from their young players and how they live as well as perform. Zefi lives in club accommodation with team-mates, as it’s the Italian way.

“He doesn’t live with them, but he sees them a lot, he lives in accommodation with the other players. Having family around helps him settle. Living on site with the other players is the best way to integrate, to learn the language, and he has to grow up, he’s nearly 17 now. He can see his family but his base is built around football. He gets to know the players, he works on the language and it’s better for him to be around his peers instead of just going home to his mam and dad every night,” says Carr.

“He has to go to school, whether he likes it or not, all the players do. He’s getting educated but is also learning the language. Getting the language was key so he can understand the rest and that’s a big change but he is getting an education. And he’s doing well with his Italian.”

Covid has been an obstacle as Zefi caught the virus more than once, and at stages the club have been in lockdown to limit its spread. Concerns over Covid also led Inter to block Zefi from travelling to Spain with the Ireland U-17 side last week, and despite attempts by Albania to bring him onside, Zefi remains committed to the Irish cause. Carr, who played all of his club football in England, is convinced that leaving Ireland was essential for his protégé.

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“Ireland is not ready yet to fill that gap and players have to take their opportunities. I know the argument that staying in Ireland and getting into the Shamrock Rovers first team is a route, of course it is. But when there are other opportunities, players can’t turn it down. I would advise people to go. And that’s not me being negative about Irish football,” he says.

Carr insists that Inter only sign players who they feel can make their first team, an early nod in that direction as Zefi has already trained with the first team. “They have invested in Kevin. Inter only sign three foreign players for their academy every year and he is one of them. So there is a pathway to the first team, they don’t sign players if they don’t see them in the first team,” Carr says.

“Kevin has the ability to do whatever he wants, but, and it’s a big but, there is also attitude and work-rate, they will be what determines if he does it. I know he has the ability, he has amazing ability, he can change a game but if his attitude isn’t right and he gets carried away with it all, he will struggle.

“Kevin has the chance, he has an opportunity but he has to make the most of it. You need the mentality to keep your feet on the ground. Kevin has done nothing in the game yet. What he has is a great opportunity to be a footballer, nothing else, and he has to prove he’s good enough to be a footballer. But he has an amazing opportunity to do that.”

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