Raúl González tells UEFA.com about his experiences with the Spain side that finished runners-up at the 1996 Under-21 finals while stressing the "huge potential" of today's young crop.
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Anyone questioning the merit of having young players compete in this month's UEFA European Under-21 Championship should listen to Raúl González's memories of contesting the event 15 summers ago.
The FC Schalke 04 forward was 18 at the time and fresh from scoring 19 league goals for Real Madrid CF when he featured in the Spain side that reached the 1996 final on home soil in Barcelona. It was, as he recalled to UEFA.com, the perfect platform on which to showcase his prodigious talents – and test himself against his contemporaries from across the continent.
Alongside fellow emerging stars Iván De La Peña, Gaizka Mendieta and Fernando Morientes, Raúl helped Javier Clemente's team beat the Czech Republic in a two-legged quarter-final before overcoming Scotland 2-1 in the semi-finals in Barcelona. That set up a showpiece meeting with an Italy side featuring Fabio Cannavaro – a future colleague of Raúl's at the Santiago Bernabéu – Alessandro Nesta, Christian Panucci and Francesco Totti.
Raúl remembered: "I was still a young player, and for us those finals were like a platform to present ourselves internationally.
People had the chance to get to know us better and watch us facing other big nations. Cannavaro was playing in the Italy team and I remember him playing a great match. They had a squad of very important players who then, of course, made it into the senior national team."
It was Raúl who equalised Totti's opening goal but he then missed a penalty in the concluding shoot-out after Italy had clung on for a 1-1 draw despite two red cards. "We missed two penalties, me and De La Peña. It was very disappointing for us – we'd hoped so much to be able to win that title in Spain, but it went the other way."
Although he would revisit that dismay four years later at UEFA EURO 2000 when failing to convert a spot kick in Spain's quarter-final defeat by France, Raúl maintains that crucial lessons were learnt. "These experiences let you grow. If you take all the good things out of it, you develop further."
Looking back on that era, he added: "We really had a very competitive team, with great players who went on to play in the Spanish league. We had lots of fun. I played in that U21 team for almost two years; we enjoyed that time very much. We had a great spirit in the squad and it was a really nice experience."
Despite missing out that spring, Spain went on to take the trophy two years later, a second triumph after their first success in 1986. Raúl is hopeful they can now go on to complete a hat-trick of wins in Denmark. "I think
Spain have always had great teams and in this upcoming EURO they will have one again. They will have their chance to become champions."
Spain's squad for the tournament includes FIFA World Cup winners Javi Martínez and Juan Mata, but Raúl sees even more examples of the "huge potential" in Spanish football within Luis Milla's travelling party. In particular, he cited the recent moves made by U21 squad members Didac Vila Rosello and Víctor Ruiz, who left RCD Espanyol in January to join AC Milan and SSC Napoli respectively.
"Many clubs give great importance to those players and from there they make their way up," he said. "[The Espanyol pair] weren't seen much in the Spanish league [and] that means that other clubs in foreign countries are paying attention to our young players." They might be paying even more attention to them after these coming two weeks in Denmark.