Portugal, Spain and Italy's U17 and U19 exploits stole the limelight in 2003.
By Luke Williams
With the next UEFA European Under-21 Championship finals scheduled for 2004, other age levels stole the limelight in 2003. Spain were arguably the team of the year in youth football, but they had no silverware to show for their efforts, finishing runners-up in no less than three tournaments.
The year began worryingly, with FIFA postponing the World Youth Championship in the United Arab Emirates because of concerns about the political situation in the Gulf. Happily the tournament was rescheduled and helped provide the year with a rousing climax - more of which later.
The first finals of the year took place in Portugal in May, as eight countries gathered for the UEFA European Under-17 Championship. The hosts were ultimately crowned champions, beating Spain 2-1 in the final through two goals from Márcio Sousa to give coach António Violante his second success as coach at this level.
'Work of the whole team'
"This was the work of the whole team and not only me," was Violante's reaction to what was an appropriate final - and one that many were dreaming of at the tournament draw in April when the countries were placed in opposite groups.
Semi-finalists England and Austria also deserved praise. The former mixed silk with steel while the latter possessed the most impressive back four at the tournament until suspensions ravaged it. Of the youngsters on show, wily Adelino Freitas and powerful Paulo Machado of Portugal were particularly accomplished while top-scorer David of Spain looked a lethal finisher.
U17 World Championship
As a result of their performances, Portugal and Spain advanced to the FIFA World Under-17 Championship in Finland in August. While the hosts wilted, losing their final group game against Colombia 9-1, the Spanish and Portuguese advanced to a quarter-final rematch of their European final.
The Spanish gained revenge for that defeat with a 5-2 victory en route to an appearance in the final, where they were unfortunate to lose 1-0 against Brazil. They gained some consolation when Cesc Fabregas, who finished top scorer with six goals, was also voted player of the tournament.
The UEFA European Under-19 Championship in Liechtenstein in July brought delight for Paolo Berrettini's Italy, who beat Portugal 2-0 in the final. The statistics underlined Italy's excellence: qualifying matches included, they won nine out of ten games en route to the title and conceded just two goals in five finals matches.
Names to note
Berrettini singled out playmaker Alberto Aquilani, striker Giampaolo Pazzini - scorer of the semi-final winner against the Czech Republic and Italy's second goal in the final - and defenders Andrea Mantovani and Damiano Ferronetti as his side's outstanding performers.
Portugal goalkeeper Paulo Ribeiro, who saved two penalties in the semi-final against Austria, also impressed along with team-mate Paulo Sérgio, who finished top scorer. Beaten semi-finalists Austria and the Czech Republic also had their moments, with the Austrians' success mirroring their U17 side's achievement in May.
U21 takes shape
In November the lineup was confirmed for the 2004 European Under-21 Championship finals after four play-offs brought the qualifying campaign to an end. Switzerland progressed by knocking out holders Czech Republic 4-3 on aggregate (an "unbelievable" victory according to coach Bernard Challandes) while Portugal beat France on penalties in another tight encounter. Sweden and Belarus surprised Spain and Poland respectively to book their berths while Italy, Germany, Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro were the other qualifiers.
The year ended with the rescheduled FIFA World Youth Championship and yet more disappointment for Spain, who, in a replay of the U17 world championship, lost 1-0 in the final against the Brazilians - their third youth football final loss of the year. Andrés Iniesta was outstanding throughout the tournament for the Spanish, who were the only European side to get beyond the last 16, although Slovakia and the Republic of Ireland impressed in getting through the group stage.
2003 UEFA Youth Football Roll of Honour:
Qualifiers: Belarus, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Serbia and Montenegro, Sweden, Switzerland.
Under-19 European Championship
Third place: Austria and Czech Republic
Under-17 European Championship
Third place: Austria
Fourth place: England