Mainz's U19 team beat Manchester City 2-1 in the UEFA Youth League last 16 after beating Barcelona on a penalty shoot-out weeks earlier in a play-off. - © IMAGO/HMB Media/Claus
Mainz's U19 team beat Manchester City 2-1 in the UEFA Youth League last 16 after beating Barcelona on a penalty shoot-out weeks earlier in a play-off. - © IMAGO/HMB Media/Claus

The Mainz miracle - how the club's youth side is seeing off Europe's elite


While Mainz's first team is engaged in a battle for Bundesliga survival, their U19 side have been sending shockwaves around Europe. The German youth champions have knocked both Barcelona and Manchester City out of the UEFA Youth League. explores their sensational youth side...

Young Louis Babatz rose to his feet and raced towards the sell-out crowd of thousands to soak up their delight after pulling off the save that saw Mainz through to the next round. The young goalkeeper was in dreamland as the beaten Barcelona players left Mainz with their heads bowed - a feeling Manchester City would share when they were eliminated in Mainz weeks later.

If you had to pause at the mention of two giants of the European game being beaten by Mainz, there is good reason. The results came in the UEFA Youth League, Europe's highest-profile U19 competition, rather than the Champions League, but that does not make them any less sensational.

Mainz has long been a club known for its great youth work, but they are soaring to dizzy new heights this season.

Barcelona U19 were beaten on penalties by Mainz U19 on 6 February after a 2-2 draw in regular time. - IMAGO/BEAUTIFUL SPORTS/Hahne

Mainz's brilliant youth record can be traced back to around 15 years ago, when a fresh-faced young coach named Thomas Tuchel guided the club to their first-ever German U19 title. 

It became a case of needs must for the 05ers, who were back in Bundesliga 2 at this stage after having spent three seasons in the top flight under the tutelage of a certain Jürgen Klopp. Without the history, the resources or the wide fan base to establish themselves as a Bundesliga force, they turned to another option - youth.

Thomas Tuchel (left) and Jürgen Klopp (right) are both former Mainz coaches who have gone on to win the UEFA Champions League with other clubs. - imago/Jan Huebner

André Schürrle was a talented attacker in the 2009 German U19 title-winning team who was then handed his debut by Tuchel upon his appointment as Mainz head coach that same year. Schürrle - who would go on to play for Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg - promptly became the club's youngest-ever goalscorer, while forming part of a youthful attacking triumvirate dubbed the Bruchweg Boys alongside Lewis Holtby and Ádám Szalai

That set a conveyor belt of talent in motion that continues to this day. Four further Mainz coaches since - Martin Schmidt, Sandro Schwarz, Bo Svensson and Jan Seiwert - have cut their teeth in the club's youth ranks, making them perfectly placed to integrate promising talents into the first team.

Centre-back Stefan Bell has made 266 Bundesliga appearances for Mainz since graduating from their youth ranks - Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

Before long, multiple talents were progressing from Mainz's youth ranks into the first team - a useful development for a club without the kind of budget to rival many Bundesliga sides in the transfer market. They had regained their top-flight status in 2010, after Tuchel's first season in charge, and were in no mood to drop back down to the second tier.

The current Mainz squad boasts no less than eight players who developed in the club's youth ranks: Stefan Bell, Robin Zentner, Leandro Barreiro, Jonathan Burkardt, Brajan Gruda, Merveille Papela, Nelson Weiper and Lasse Rieß.

The momentum from the years of successful youth development has fed back into itself. Mainz proudly communicated the fact that seven youth graduates started a 1-0 win against RB Leipzig in September 2021, and the club's head of football Christian Heidel said: "We could not have asked for better marketing than that. Young players across Germany who are 14 to 16 know that Mainz is a great place to develop." 

Watch: Nelson Weiper becomes Mainz's youngest-ever goalscorer

Heidel added that Mainz has been looking to sharpen its youth development further by increasing the quality of coaching in its set-up. The fruits of that are now in a magnificent bloom.

Gruda is an explosive right winger who captained Mainz to their U19 German title success last season, and was rewarded with a Silver Fritz Walter Medal - an acknowledgment of major talents in the German game. The 19-year-old gained his first Bundesliga start in September away at Werder Bremen and soon netted a sensational first strike in the league in a 2-2 draw at Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Weiper is another fixture in the U19 title-winning side that has made his mark on the Bundesliga. The striker became Mainz's youngest-ever player and scorer - netting twice in the Bundesliga as a 17-year-old in 2022/23. He made three appearances at the start of 2023/24 but injury misfortune struck to leave the 18-year-old on the sidelines since. 

Watch: Gruda scores screamer as Mainz draw at Gladbach

The current UEFA Youth League campaign has shown that there are many more young talents on the brink of following Gruda and Weiper's footsteps with a Bundesliga breakthrough in Mainz. Left-back Tim Müller sank a sensational drive from outside the box as Mainz beat Manchester City in the last 16. Captain Daniel Gleiber had netted the opener against Barcelona before having his penalty miss in the shootout atoned for by two saves from Babatz.

Centre-back Philipp Schulz proved to have nerves of steel by smashing in the opening penalty of the Barcelona shootout after bundling in an equaliser in that tie. Luxembourg U19 international Aiman Dardari has been a standout player in the U19 domestic season, smashing nine goals in 17 appearances for Mainz from left wing. 

Mainz have knocked out English under-18 champions Manchester City as well as Barcelona - famed for their La Masia academy - in the UEFA Youth League. - IMAGO/Fotostand / Racocha

As well as providing a glimpse of a great future crop of players, the dazzling Youth League run has put an element of great excitement into a challenging season for the club. The Barcelona and Manchester City matches both attracted capacity crowds of over 7,000 to the Bruchwegstadion, the former home of the professionals until 2011.

With the seniors locked in a relegation battle and winning just two of their first 24 Bundesliga matches, those involved in the astonishing successes of the younger counterparts are aware of the buzz they are creating. Gleiber said: "With the professionals having a difficult time, we can be a small ray of hope."

New boss Henriksen has indeed acknowledged the his side could do with the virtues of the Youth League team in their relegation fight, saying: "We all saw how these boys were brave and determined running around the pitch, and that is inspirational. That's the exact attitude this club needs, and that's what we stand for."

Mainz fans have flocked in big numbers to support their club's UEFA Youth League team, with three knockout matches sold out at the Bruchwegstadion. - IMAGO/Fotostand / Racocha

Benjamin Hoffman, coach of the Youth League team, has also spoken glowingly of the feelgood factor they have created. "I've had to pinch myself at times," he said. "The sense of euphoria we have created for the city, the fans and the club is just incredible. Hats off to the fans for appreciating the spirit of the team."

Hoffmann has promised his side can deal with any adversity. Next in line to visit Mainz are a young Porto team, previous Youth League winners, on 13 March. Just don't try to get tickets, as all the seats were snapped up within minutes of going on sale.

Win that and the Mainz youngsters will be in the final four - who are to contest a play-off tournament in Switzerland in April. A European trophy is therefore just 270 minutes away from finding its way into Mainz's trophy cabinet alongside the 1982 German Amateur Title and 1973 Southwest Regional League. It would be a glorious, yet fitting, reward for the club's enthusiastic youth work over the years.