England have won this competition twice, and a host of World Cup winners have achieved prominence on the back of performances in the European U-21s...
The UEFA European Under-21 Championship first took place in 1978. Since the late 60s UEFA had organised ‘Youth’ tournaments for players Under-23, but decided to lower the age banding to 21. This was done because it was felt the gap between Under-23 and the next group Under-18 was too large. UEFA wanted to ensure a smoother transition from youth to senior football.
An England side including youngsters by the name of Glen Hoddle, Peter Reid and Tony Woodcock were involved in the first competition. However the team were unable to prevent a Yugoslavia side inspired by Vahid Halilhodžić knocking them out in the semis. The Eastern European side would then go on to win the inaugural competition defeating East Germany 5-4 on aggregate. An England side under the stewardship of Dave Sexton would fare better in the early 80’s, winning the 1982 and 1984 tournaments, the latter saw Mark Hateley win the Player of the Tournament award.
The Championships would gain in importance, in 1994 the format of a two legged semi-final and final was changed to see the final stage hosted by one nation. Four years later it was expanded to its current format to include eight teams with competition now starting with a group stage. The 90s would see the rise and rise of Italy with the ‘Azzurrini’ winning the 92, 94 and 96 tournaments. The Young Blues won again in 2000 and 2004, their five titles comfortably making them the competitions most successful nation.
The tournament was moved to odd numbered years in 2007. The switch was primarily made to avoid clashing with the senior EUROs and World Cups. Another benefit was that the tournament would give young players the experience of intense competition prior to the senior sides qualification and participation in the tournaments soon afterwards. This change has already achieved it’s desired effect, the German side who finished third in the 2010 World Cup included the likes of Mehmet Ozil, Sami Khedira , Michael Neuer and Jerome Boateng. All starred in the German Under-21 sides triumph in Sweden in the 2009 Under-21 EUROs tournament giving them invaluable experience for their successful time in South Africa.
As in 2009, the tournament has always provided the first glimpse of players who would go on to become stars of the game. Here’s a list of five who have used the tournament to break on to the main stage and won the Player of the Tournament award…
Ten years after winning the tournament again in 1996 Fabio would captain his country to World Cup glory in Germany.
Rudi Voller – Everyone’s favourite spitting mullet-wearing German was already highly thought of in his homeland despite playing for 1860 Munich in the German 2ND Division. He scored five in the Germans route to the final in which they faced England. Voller could only score a consolation in the 1st Leg but he had done more then enough to alert potential suitors and Werder Bremen snapped him up soon after. Whilst many will remember him for his ‘altercation’ with Frank Rijkaard at the 1990 World Cup, the German would go on to claim a World Cup winners medal. Voller went on to manage his nation but his side lost to a Ronaldo inspired Brazil in the 2002 Final.
Laurent Blanc – Like Voller, Blanc has since gone on to become manager of his national side. His role in France’s triumph in 1988 was just the start for someone who would go on to achieve so much in the game. It may have been brief, Blanc making his debut in the second leg of the final against Greece, but the clean sheet side that they needed and he helped gain was proof of his ability. After the little matter of captaining the French side to glory in the 1998 World Cup Laurent would go on to win the senior EURO championships in 2000.
Fabio Cannavaro – The Neapolitan announced his presence on the national stage as part of the Italian side that won the 1994 and 1996 tournaments. Excelling in the 1994 final against a strong Portugese side that included the attacking talents of Luis Figo and Rui Costa. In typical Italian fashion he helped his side keep it tight at the back, and a goal on the break from Pierluigi Orlandini saw the Azzurini triumph. Ten years after winning the tournament again in 1996 Fabio would captain his country to World Cup glory in Germany.
Petr Cech – The young Czech showed just why he would go on to become one of the Continents top stoppers with two saves in the 2002 final penalty shoot out which would help his side beat France 3-1 on penalties. A move to Stade Rennes followed, before long the giants of European football were interested and he moved to Chelsea in 2004. He has been number one ever since and has shown that 2002 was merely the start of an impressive career.
Royston Drenthe – Not all those who impress go on to greatness. After leading hosts The Netherlands to victory in 2009 Drenthe was named the Player of the Tournament. A high profile transfer to Real Madrid soon followed but after struggling to impress he was farmed out on loan to Hercules at the start of the 2010/11 season. Things looked good when he starred on debut as Hercules beat Barcelona 2-0 in the Camp Nou. It all unravelled soon after as he fell out with the club after Drenthe claimed he wasn’t being paid. He went on strike returning to the Netherlands. Some Hercules fans were so incensed that they painted graffiti on his house, slogans that were daubed on his property included ‘Bastard’ and ‘Son of a bitch’ and the rather more sinister ‘KKK’. He eventually returned and played out the season. He is now back at Madrid where the Special One has already made clear he is not part of his plans. At this rate he may struggle to match the achievements of the likes of Cannavaro and Blanc.
The absence of the likes of Jack Wilshere may show that the demands of modern football mean that not necessarily all the best players under 21 in Europe will be on show in Denmark. However, history shows that it gives us all an opportunity to have a glimpse of those players that will go on to grace the beautiful game in the future. Those already missing football since the seasons end have no better reason to watch the action unfold in Denmark.
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