Wednesday, June 17, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: June 19, 11:02 AM UK
U-21s have a warning from history
The European U-21 championships have long been seen as a testing ground for the continent's young stars. A chance to shine on the world stage, the competition's history is littered with players who were able to use their performances to advance their careers, but it also acts as a warning that not everyone will fulfil their potential in the future.
The bi-annual event kicked-off two days ago for the 2009 edition and has already given notice that there will be a plethora of young faces arriving at new clubs next season on the back of their eye-catching performances in Sweden.
Indeed, the tournament has a rich history of success in this area. Back in 1990, a young Yugoslavian striker by the name of Davor Suker announced himself to the world with four goals in five games as Yugoslavia won their qualifying group, before losing in the final to the USSR. The striker went on to win the UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid in 1998 and his six goals at the '98 World Cup for Croatia put him at the very top of the game for many years.
A tournament that had already blooded the likes of Luis Figo ('94), Rudi Völler ('82) and Laurent Blanc ('88) had its finest hour in 1996 when two of the most talented attacking players the world has ever seen made their impressions on the global game.
Spanish striker Raul and his Italian counterpart Francesco Totti both played in the final - won by Italy - but while Totti would get the headlines, the competition also succeeded in bringing the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro and Rui Costa to the world's attention.
More recently, the competition can take credit for pushing forward the career of Andrea Pirlo. Having been sent off against hosts Slovakia at the U21s in 2000, the Inter Milan midfielder could have slipped off the radar but returned in the final to seal victory with a stunning (now trademark) free-kick.
His breakthrough season may have come on loan at Reggina the season before but, in 2001, he earned himself his move to AC Milan on the back of his starts in Slovakia and went on to establish himself as one of the most respected midfielders in the game.
Petr Cech, too, can thank his performances at the U21s for the Czech Republic in 2002 for his elevation to the senior side. The goalkeeper starred as the Czechs overcame France 3-1 in a penalty shoot-out and he went on to keep five clean sheets en route to the Euro 2004 semi-finals, earning him a summer move to Chelsea. Winning successive English league titles in his first two seasons at Stamford Bridge, Cech is now viewed as one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
But while there have been numerous successes, the tournament has also shown a propensity for breaking careers too.
In 1992, an Italian midfielder by the name of Renato Buso came to the fore. Having been touted for greatness from the moment Juventus signed him as a 15-year-old, Buso took advantage of an injury to AC Milan's Demetrio Albertini to make his mark on the tournament and was named the Golden Player as Italy took the title. However, his winner's medal was to be the last honour he collected in the game and he disappeared from sight after the competition.
Another Italian - striker Massimo Maccarone - impressed sufficiently in 2002 to earn himself an £8m move to Middlesbrough; but having been labelled 'inept' by then-coach Steve McClaren, was sent out on loan to Parma and Siena, where he currently plies his trade without fear of being labelled an 'expensive mistake'.
More recently, that finger has to be pointed at Dutchman Royston Drenthe. The left-sided midfielder played such an important role in Holland's 2007 win, that he was linked with every top club in Europe at the end of the competition. Having succeeded in what was only his second full season at Feyenoord, Drenthe was named player of the tournament in his home country and moved to Real Madrid for €14m after threatening to sue the club if he did not get his 'dream' move.
But Drenthe embodies the 'flash in the pan' kind of player that the U-21 event can sometimes throw up. Having won his move, he clashed with then-Madrid coach Bernd Schuster before being booed by his own supporters and asking new boss Juande Ramos not be picked for the following three games.
Anxiety appears to have been the cause of his undoing at the club, but had he chosen to stay in Holland until he was fully developed - as a person and a player - then he would have been more able to deal with the problems life at a big club can bring.
Holland have also seen another 2007 star fall by the wayside. A last-minute addition to Foppe de Haan's squad, Maceo Ritgers won the Golden Boot to take his team to glory, but was unable to live up to the hype after Blackburn swooped to sign him from NAC Breda for an undisclosed fee in the months following the Dutch success.
The 25-year-old could not meet expectations during his time in England and loan spells to Norwich City and Barnsley have not managed to kick start his career since; failure to score a single goal in the English leagues since his arrival surely marks him out as one of the biggest flops of the competition's history. Indeed, that the Dutch have not qualified for this year's event suggests the transient nature of some of the stars on show.
Obviously these players are still young enough to turn their careers around, but it is evident that while the European U-21 Championships can turn up the next Suker, Raul or Totti, it can also play havoc with the career of a potential young star. Heed the warnings from history and players can find themselves at the top, but ignore them and Europe's next crop of youngsters risk ending up on the pile of forgotten one-tournament wonders.
• E-mail Jon Carter with your thoughts