Rudi Völler, Fabio Cannavaro and Zinédine Zidane are among the names that are often mentioned when the subject crops up of Under-21 graduates who went on to conquer the world.
While it is accepted, and even expected, that players who cut their international teeth at the UEFA European U21 Championship go on to compete at FIFA World Cups, it is unheard of for them to attend the global event first.
That is exactly what Javi Martínez and Juan Mata are doing at these finals in Denmark, though, and now they have the chance of winning both trophies in an unprecedented order. Spain captain Javi Martínez, who made one appearance in La Roja's triumphant trip to South Africa last summer, said: "Imagine winning, in the space of less than a year, the World Cup and the EURO Under-21s – it would be a dream."
The Athletic Club midfielder, 22, has had more direct involvement in Denmark, starting every game and only being replaced once – when Spain were 3-0 up against Ukraine in their final group game. "I am delighted with the way it has gone here and to win the title would be a great climax to the campaign," he added.
Mata is the fulcrum around which Spain's dynamic attack functions. He said: "It's very important for me to have the opportunity to round off a very good year." Like Javi Martínez, the 23-year-old Valencia playmaker made a solitary appearance in South Africa. "
Last year I was lucky enough to live the experience of the World Cup and win it, and now I have the opportunity to win a European Championship."
No player has taken part in a successful World Cup bid and then gone on to U21 glory. Pierre Littbarski represented West Germany in the 1982 World Cup final against Italy, and then three months later for the two-legged U21 decider with England. However, he ended up on the losing side in both despite scoring a second-leg hat-trick against the Young Lions.
Now Mata and Javi Martínez have the chance to make history, although they were only a few minutes from this unique dream being dashed during a fraught semi-final victory over Belarus. "People probably thought Belarus would be straightforward opponents, but we knew from the beginning that they were going to be really tough," added Javi Martínez, who has already made 170 Liga appearances for Athletic.
An 89th-minute Adrián López equaliser came to Spain's rescue, and two goals in extra time set up a final against a Switzerland side who have won all their games in Denmark without conceding. "
Switzerland are a team who like to play football and I think that will help us if anything, because we will have more room to play in. I hope it's an open game with two teams trying to get on the ball."
Under-21 and FIFA World Cup winners
Marco Amelia: 2004 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup, unused substitute)
Cristian Zaccardo: 2004 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup, unused substitute)
Daniele De Rossi: 2004 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup, unused substitute)
Andrea Barzagli: 2004 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup, unused substitute)
Alberto Gilardino: 2004 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup, unused substitute)
Andrea Pirlo: 2000 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup)
Gennaro Gattuso: 2000 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup)
Francesco Totti: 1996 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup)
Gianluigi Buffon: 1996 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup)
Alessandro Nesta: 1996 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup, unused substitute)
Fabio Cannavaro: 1994, 1996 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup)
Filippo Inzaghi: 1994 (Under-21), 2006 (World Cup, unused substitute)
Angelo Peruzzi: 1992 (Under-21, unused substitute), 2006 (World Cup, unused substitute)
Laurent Blanc: 1988 (Under-21), 1998 (World Cup, suspended for final)
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