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The evolution of the Under-21 EURO

A look back on how a boxing-style series of Under-23 challenge matches became the 16-team U21 final tournament of today.

England: winners of the 1984 Competition for national representative Under-21 teams, which ended in a two-legged final against Spain
England: winners of the 1984 Competition for national representative Under-21 teams, which ended in a two-legged final against Spain Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Imahes

It is 55 years since UEFA decided to launch a European Under-23 national team competition to help young players bridge the gap between youth football and senior national teams. Over the years, the competition has developed into the highly successful UEFA European Under-21 Championship.

Our history timeline shows the key dates, events and changes in a competition that has proved its worth as a privileged platform for the budding stars of the future.

Mid-1960s

UEFA begins considering the introduction of a new competition to provide a stage for players under 23 years of age.

6 July 1966

A decision is taken at UEFA’s Congress in London to create a new Under-23 national team competition.

January 1967

UEFA invites member associations to take part in a Challenge Cup for national representative Under-23 sides. Seventeen countries sign up – but only two take part: Bulgaria and the German Democratic Republic.

7 June 1967

A single match takes place between Bulgaria and East Germany to decide the first title. Bulgaria win 3-2 on home soil. Under the competition format – similar to boxing – Bulgaria, as defending champions, then face ‘challengers’ drawn at random for a single match in Bulgaria. Bulgaria retain the title three times: twice more in 1967 (against Finland and Czechoslovakia) and once in 1968 (against the Netherlands).

26 October 1968

Yugoslavia capture the Under-23 trophy by beating Bulgaria away from home, and defend their title in one-off games against Spain and Sweden (1969) and Greece (1970).

1969

UEFA member association presidents, meeting in Switzerland, decide to launch a biennial Under-23 competition with a more traditional format.

24 March 1970

The final Under-23 Challenge Cup match sees visitors Yugoslavia overcome Greece 5-1 in Athens to continue their winning tradition.

1970–72

The inaugural competition for national representative Under-23 teams attracts 23 entrants

1970–76

The competition for national representative Under-23 teams is played three times under the same format. Participating associations are divided into eight qualifying groups which, in principle and in a bid to overcome calendar issues, are identical to the senior World Cup or European Championship qualifying groups – matches are played on the same day or weekend. The eight group winners contest the quarter-finals on a home-and-away basis; the semi-finals and final are also played over two legs.

28 January 1976

A conference of UEFA presidents and general secretaries in Marbella decides to reduce the competition’s age limit to 21 – meaning that more players aged between 18 and 21 will be able to participate.

1976–78

Vahid Halilhodžić: a U21 winner for Yugoslavia aged 26 under the rules at the time
Vahid Halilhodžić: a U21 winner for Yugoslavia aged 26 under the rules at the timeBob Thomas Sports Photography vi

The first competition for national representative Under-21 teams is held with a similar format to the previous three U23 competitions. The rules at the time allow each team to field two players over 21 – and Yugoslavia’s Vahid Halilhodžić is a title-winner for his country at the age of 26!

1986–88

The competition is renamed the European Under-21 Championship for the 1986–88 edition, underlining its important role as a stepping stone to the senior national team competitions.

1992

The competition becomes the European qualifying competition for the Olympic men's football tournament.

1994

UEFA introduces a final tournament from 1994. The format includes a qualifying phase and two-legged quarter-finals; the semi-finals and final are played as single games in the same country in the same week, with one of the semi-finalists hosting the finals. France host the first Under-21 final round in April 1994

1996

Italy win their third consecutive title, setting a record that still stands today.

1996–98

UEFA abolishes two-legged quarter-finals, which had existed since the competition started, and incorporates the last eight into the first eight-team final tournament. New qualification system: nine groups, but the winners do not automatically go through to the final round; instead the best seven sides qualify for the finals, while the eighth and ninth-best teams enter a play-off round. Romania are the first hosts of this eight-team final round, comprising quarter-finals, semi-finals, final and third-place play-off, in May 1998.

1998–2000

Another new format sees all nine group winners and the seven best runners-up contesting two-legged play-offs to determine the eight finalists. This is the first tournament with a group stage – two groups of four – a third-place play-off and a final.

2002

Semi-finals are reinstated. The template of eight teams (two groups of four), semi-finals and a final is used until 2015.

2002–04

Ten qualification groups are formed; the group winners and six best runners-up contest play-offs to produce the eight finalists.

Highlights: Italy claim 2004 U21 crown
Highlights: Italy claim 2004 U21 crown

2004–06

The top two teams in eight qualifying groups qualify for play-offs, staged in November 2005. Eight winners qualify for the 2006 final tournament.

2005

UEFA decides to switch the tournament to odd years from 2007 to avoid clashing with EURO final rounds and World Cups. With senior teams promoting players from their Under-21 sides for their own qualifying campaigns, the change affords players more time to develop in the U21 ranks. A separate draw is made to form the qualifying groups, which are no longer identical to the European Championship or World Cup qualifiers. The host country for the finals, who qualify automatically, will now be appointed in advance.

2006–07

The 2006–07 competition actually begins before the 2006 finals (starting 23 May 2006) with a preliminary qualifying round (commencing 12 April 2006) held to eliminate eight of the lowest-ranked nations. For the first time, the hosts – Netherlands – are chosen ahead of the qualifying competition. As hosts, Netherlands qualify automatically. Coincidentally, the Dutch had won the 2006 edition – the holders would normally have gone through qualification. The other nations are drawn into 14 three-team groups. The 14 group winners are paired in double-leg play-offs to decide the seven finalists alongside the hosts.

20/21 March 2012

The UEFA Executive Committee announces that Czech Republic will host the 2015 Under-21 finals – the last before the competition moves back to even numbered years from 2016 onwards.

19 September 2013

Following a request from UEFA’s member associations, the UEFA Executive Committee announces its intention to continue holding the final tournament in odd numbered years.

24 January 2014

The UEFA Executive Committee decides to expand the 2017 final round in Poland from eight to 12 teams. The finals will consist of three groups of four; the group winners are joined in the semi-finals by the best runner-up. Changes to the qualifying format see all nine group winners qualify, leaving the four best runners-up to contest play-offs for the last two spots. This format remains in place for the 2019 showpiece in Italy and San Marino.

6 February 2019

The UEFA Executive Committee decides to increase the number of finalists to 16 for the 2021 finals in Hungary and Slovenia. This move gives more countries the opportunity to qualify for the finals of this elite competition, providing invaluable experience for a greater number of promising young players.

2021

Owing to the COVID pandemic, the 2021 tournament in Hungary and Slovenia has a unique format and schedule, with the group stage and knockout stage held separately. The group stage runs from 24 to 31 March 2021, with the group winners and runners-up advancing to the eight-team knockout phase from 31 May to 6 June 2021.

Five U21 long-range stunners
Five U21 long-range stunners

WINNERS

Challenge Cup for national representative Under-23 teams
1967–68: Bulgaria
1968–70: Yugoslavia
Competition for national representative Under-23 teams
1972: Czechoslovakia
1974: Hungary
1976: USSR
Competition for national representative Under-21 teams
1978: Yugoslavia
1980: USSR
1982: England
1984: England
1986: Spain
European Under-21 Championship
1988: France
1990: USSR
1992: Italy
1994: Italy
1996: Italy
1998: Spain
2000: Italy
2002: Czech Republic
2004: Italy
2006: Netherlands
2007: Netherlands
2009: Germany
2011: Spain
2013: Spain
2015: Sweden
2017: Germany
2019: Spain