A competition full of promise

The latest European Under-21 Championship finals take place in Italy and San Marino. We look back at the history of a competition in perpetual transformation that has succeeded in retaining its sporting and popular interest thanks to a format that has evolved through the decades.

The U21 EURO trophy
The U21 EURO trophy ©Sportsfile

Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, David De Gea, Juan Mata, Alvaro Morata … A quick glance at the list of great players who have won the UEFA European Under-21 Championship over the past ten years shows how competitive it has become.

Germany celebrate their triumph in 2017
Germany celebrate their triumph in 2017©Sportsfile

The high standard of competition is further demonstrated by the names of the winning teams, with 12 of the 14 titles since 1992 having been shared between Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. Only the Czech Republic (in 2002) and Sweden (in 2015) have managed to snatch the title away from the giants. The European Under-21 Championship is therefore firmly established in the European football landscape and represents an important showcase for the continent’s most promising young players.

But it has not always been that way … In fact, it is not an easy task to follow the history, with almost as many different formats as there have been competitions. Although the official list of winners shows Yugoslavia as winners of the inaugural European Under-21 Competition in 1978, the event’s origins actually date back by more than a decade, to 1966.

The Challenge Cup
The European Champion Clubs’ Cup – forerunner of the UEFA Champions League – had existed since 1955, and the European Football Championship – known then as the European Nations’ Cup – had kicked off with a first final tournament in France in 1960. By the mid-1960s, UEFA wanted to create a new competition with a very clear objective: to provide a stage for players under 23 years of age.

Sweden (2015)
Sweden (2015)©Getty Images

While youth competitions for players under 18 were already in existence, nothing was in place to assist their transition to the senior competitions. In a consultative vote at the 1966 UEFA Congress in London, it was decided that a new Under-23 national team competition should be created.

The project was launched the following January, when UEFA invited its member associations to take part in the Challenge Cup for National Representative Under-23 Teams. Seventeen countries signed up. The format chosen was somewhat unusual to say the least, but resulted from a desire to avoid clogging up an already overloaded calendar: the German Democratic Republic and Bulgaria were drawn to contest the inaugural competition in a single match, which took place on 7 June 1967. Bulgaria ran out 3-2 winners of a competition in which only two of the 17 associations that had entered actually took part.

What followed was just as unconventional: Bulgaria, as defending champions, were required to face a ‘challenger’, drawn at random to try to capture the trophy in a one-off match on Bulgarian soil. More common in boxing and sailing than in football, this format enabled Bulgaria to retain the title three times, twice more in 1967 and once in 1968 by fending off Finland, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands in quick succession.

Spain (2013)
Spain (2013)©Sportsfile

It was Yugoslavia who finally knocked the Bulgarians off their perch on 26 October 1968, before emulating their feat of successfully defending the title three times in 1969 and 1970, against Spain, Sweden and Greece. The match between Greece and Yugoslavia in Athens on 24 March 1970 marked the end of the Challenge Cup era because, at the 1969 conference of member association presidents in Switzerland, UEFA had decided to launch a biennial Under-23 competition with a more traditional format.

The Competition for National Representative Under-23 Teams, as it was called, was played three times between 1972 and 1976, under the same format each time: the 21 to 23 participating associations were divided into eight qualifying groups which, in principle and in an effort to overcome calendar issues, were identical to the senior World Cup or European Championship qualifying groups, with matches to be played on the same day or weekend. The eight group winners contested the quarter-finals on a home-and-away basis, while the semi-finals and final were also two-legged affairs. This Under-23 competition was won by Czechoslovakia (1972), Hungary (1974) and the Soviet Union (1976).

Netherlands (2006)
Netherlands (2006)©Getty Images

A lower age limit, but not for everyone
Dominated on the whole by Eastern European teams, the competition was very popular with spectators, and the finals always attracted crowds of over 15,000. Despite this popularity, the conference of UEFA presidents and general secretaries held in Marbella on 28 January 1976 resolved to make some minor changes and took a decision that marked the real birth of the competition as we know it today: by reducing the age limit to 21, it made the competition more accessible to players in the 18–21 age bracket, many of whom had previously seen their path blocked by 22- and 23-year-olds.

The inaugural Under-21 Competition was held between 1976 and 1978, keeping to a format similar to the one used for the previous three Under-23 competitions. Yugoslavia won that first Under-21 Competition at the end of a lengthy ten-match campaign that concluded with a two-legged victory over the German Democratic Republic. Interestingly, the rules at the time allowed each team to field two players over 21, which is why Yugoslavia’s Vahid Halilhodžić was able to lift the Under-21 trophy at the age of 26!

Eastern European dominance continued in the second competition, with the Soviet Union beating the German Democratic Republic in the 1980 final. After its early upheavals, the competition settled down with a format that remained unchanged until 1992, although it was renamed as the European Under-21 Championship for the 1986–88 edition in order to emphasise its importance and role as a stepping stone to the senior national team competitions.

On the pitch, it was dominated by the major Western European nations, who won five of the six championships between 1982 and 1992. England started the trend by winning two consecutive titles, beating the Federal Republic of Germany in 1982 and Spain two years later. The Spaniards took their revenge in 1986, defeating Italy on penalty kicks in the final. France continued the West’s dominance against Greece in 1988, before the Soviet Union won the subsequent edition, thrashing Yugoslavia in the 1990 final.

Italy (2004)
Italy (2004)©UEFA.com

Italy then began its love affair with the competition with victory over Sweden in 1992 – the year when the competition became the European qualifying competition for the Olympic football tournament. UEFA decided to amend the format after that by introducing a final tournament from 1994. The qualifying phase and two-legged quarter-finals remained, but the semi-finals and final were to be played as single matches in the same country in the same week – as long as one of the semi-finalists was willing to host the finals.

From 4 to 16
France hosted the first Under-21 final round in April 1994, when they were joined by Italy, Portugal and Spain. The format change did not stop Italy from retaining their title, beating the hosts on penalties in the semi-finals and Portugal in the final thanks to a golden goal by Pierluigi Orlandini. The Italians continued their stranglehold on the trophy in 1996, winning their third consecutive title and setting a record that still stands today.

UEFA introduced a mini-revolution for the 1996–98 competition by abolishing the two-legged quarter-finals, which had existed since the competition began, and incorporating the last eight into the final round. The qualification system was also revised: the group winners did not all automatically go through to the final round, two of them being left to negotiate a play-off round.

Czech Republic 2002
Czech Republic 2002©Getty Images

In May 1998, Romania hosted the first eight-team final round with quarter-finals, semi-finals, the final and play-off matches. Spain beat Greece in the final. There was another change in format for the 1998–2000 competition, with all the group winners and the seven best runners-up having to contest play-off matches to determine the eight finalists. Having missed the 1998 finals, Italy regained ‘their’ title in 2000 with an Andrea Pirlo brace in the final against the Czech Republic. Staged in Slovakia, this tournament was the first to consist of a group stage (two groups of four), a third-place play-off and a final. However, semi-finals were reinstated in 2002, when the Czechs took revenge by eliminating the Italians in the last four before beating France on penalties in the final.

The format introduced in 2002 (eight teams, two groups of four, semi-finals and final) continued to be used until 2015. The only change during that period, adopted in 2005, was that the event switched to odd years from 2007 to avoid clashing with European Football Championship final rounds and World Cups. As a result, a separate draw was held to form the qualifying groups – meaning they were no longer identical to the European Championship or World Cup qualifying groups – and the host country for the finals, who would qualify automatically, was appointed a long time in advance rather than at the end of the qualifying campaign.

Italy (2004), the Netherlands (2006 and 2007), Germany (2009), Spain (2011 and 2013) and Sweden (2015) were all crowned champions before the final round was expanded again in 2017, when Poland hosted the first 12-team final tournament, for which the finalists started out split into three groups of four. The group winners were joined in the semi-finals by the best runner-up (Germany), who, in this instance, sneaked through the semi-finals before beating Spain in the final.


Meanwhile, the expansion of the final tournament also resulted in changes to the qualification format: all group winners now qualified, leaving the four best runners-up to contest play-offs. This format remains in place for one last time for the 2019 finals, which will be held in Italy and San Marino from 16 to 30 June. At its meeting on 6 February 2019, the UEFA Executive Committee decided to increase the number of finalists to 16 from the 2021 final tournament, which will be co-hosted by Hungary and Slovenia. The Executive Committee believes this new format will give more countries an opportunity to qualify for the finals of this elite competition, providing invaluable experience for promising young players. Such is the thinking behind this latest change to the format of a competition that has been constantly reinventing itself for more than half a century in order to best meet the needs of the member associations and their young players.

The 2019 edition
Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, Bologna
Stadio Città del Tricolore, Reggio Emilia
Stadio Dino Manuzzi, Cesena
Stadio Nereo Rocco, Trieste
Stadio Friuli, Udine
San Marino Stadium, Serravalle

Group A:
Italy, Spain, Poland, Belgium
Group B:
Germany, Denmark, Serbia, Austria
Group C:
England, France, Romania, Croatia

Group A: 16, 19, 22 June
Group B: 17, 20, 23 June
Group C: 18, 21, 24 June
Semi-finals: 27 June
Final: 30 June

The three group winners and the best runner-up qualify for the semi-finals.

Olympic tournament
This final round will also act as the qualifying competition for the 2020 Olympic football tournament in Japan. All four semi-finalists will qualify, unless England are among them (the IOC only recognises Great Britain), in which case a play-off match will determine the fourth European participant.

This article originally appeared in UEFA Direct 184