What is now the UEFA European Under-21 Championship has it roots in the late 1960s but there have been many stages in its evolution to the high-profile biennial tournament of today.
The continent's most exciting young players offer a tantalising glimpse into what the future of European football might hold. A curling free-kick from Andrea Pirlo in the 2000 final, a diving penalty save from Petr Čech to help the Czech Republic win the trophy two years after that; the stars of tomorrow did it here first. Italy have triumphed a record five occasions; in 2013 Spain secured their fourth victory.
The format has changed down the years, but the competition's raison d'être has remained the same: to provide a stepping stone from youth football up to the full international stage. The roll call of great players who have graduated from European football's élite finishing school is testament to its enduring success. Roberto Mancini, Zinédine Zidane, Rudi Völler, Davor Šuker, Luís Figo, Raúl González and Frank Lampard to name but a few have all played their part in making the UEFA European U21 Championship one of the highlights on the football calendar.
Today's prestigious eight-team final tournament enjoys worldwide acclaim, but it has evolved considerably since UEFA first put the idea to its member associations in January 1967. The concept then was for a 'Challenge Cup for national representative teams aged under-23'. Seventeen associations signed up, from which Bulgaria and East Germany were drawn to play the first match. It was held in Stara Zagora on 7 June 1967, with Bulgaria winning 3-2 to become the first champions. Like in boxing, they were simply required to defend their title against a series of challengers and Bulgaria then Yugoslavia dominated the early years. The foundations for today's competition had been laid.
It was not until 1976 that the age limit was changed to U21, when UEFA decided the gap between U18 and U23 levels was too great. By now the Challenge Cup format had given way to qualifying groups followed by a knockout competition from the quarter-finals onwards. Yugoslavia prolonged the early eastern dominance by winning that first final in Mostar. Italy, though, would leave the greatest mark on the competition, winning the U21 championship on five occasions, most recently in 2004 when they defeated Serbia and Montenegro 3-0 in Bochum.
Italy were first crowned champions in 1992 and successfully defended their title two years later when for the first time the semi-finals and final were played as a single tournament in France. Pierluigi Orlandini scored the extra-time winner for Italy in Montpellier in the first final to be decided by a single match. The final tournament was expanded to eight teams in Romania in 1998, when Spain interrupted Italy's run of success, but the Azzurrini were back on top in 2000, the year the group stage was introduced in the final tournament. The current format came into place in 2002 when the Czech Republic triumphed in Switzerland.
In 2007 the event was switched to odd years to avoid clashing with the UEFA European Championship and FIFA World Cup. So, with the U21 Championship taking centre stage, the Netherlands put on a show on home soil beating Serbia 4-1 in the final to lift the crown. They failed to make it a hat-trick two years later as Switzerland knocked them out in qualifying and it was Germany's time to shine, Horst Hrubesch's team avenging the 1982 final defeat by England with a record 4-0 triumph in Malmo.
The 2010s was Spain's decade. The Roja won in 2011 and 2013, echoing the nation's success at senior and youth level. Sweden triumphed in 2015 in the Czech Republic but Spain reached the final again in 2017, defeated by Germany. Spain did not have to wait long for revenge and a record-equalling fifth title, though, turning tables on Germany in the 2019 final in Italy.
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