Unusually, the 1996 UEFA European Under-18 Championship had joint hosts in France and Luxembourg. It was the French who gained automatic entry, and with the likes of Mikaël Silvestre, William Gallas, Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka at their disposal, it was little surprise that they ended up with the trophy.
The qualifying round, in which Luxembourg were eliminated, was relatively free of upsets as the top three from 1995 – Spain, Italy and Greece – all went through. But in the intermediary round Italy and Greece were both in the sole three-team group rather than two-nation play-off, and the Azzurrini prevailed. Spain beat Norway 7-1 on aggregate to seal their place.
Group A was played entirely in France, and the hosts began by overcoming Hungary 2-1, Trezeguet scoring twice, while Portugal drew 2-2 with Belgium. Two days later Trezeguet struck the only goal against Portugal, while Belgium kept up their hopes with a 2-1 win against Hungary. However, Belgium needed to beat the hosts to reach the final, and although Trezeguet's opener was cancelled out by Joeri Pardo with 16 minutes left, France held on to draw. Third place in the group ensured a FIFA U-20 World Cup berth, and Hungary claimed it by defeating Portugal 3-0.
There was little to choose between the Group B teams on the first two matchdays. In Luxembourg the Republic of Ireland, qualifiers for the first time since 1990, drew 1-1 with Italy, while over the border in Amneville, England finished goalless against Spain. Two days later, Spain's game was again scoreless, this time versus Ireland, while Italy and England ended 1-1. But on the final day the decisive moves were made, a late David Thompson goal giving England victory against Ireland, only for Spain to go through on goal difference as they won 3-0 against Italy in a repeat of the 1995 final in Luxembourg. Goal difference also took Ireland to the World Cup, where they finished third.
Unbeaten pair England and Belgium met for third place, and although Belgium came from 2-0 down at half-time to force extra time, Michael Owen's 102nd-minute goal clinched bronze for a team also containing Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard. France's all-star lineup stepped out for the final in Besancon, and Henry's 26th-minute goal proved enough to defeat Spain and ensure their second title - the only nation apart from the Soviet Union to have won two European U18 Championships at this point. But with so much talent, there was more to come at all levels.
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