It is a rite of passage for most eligible players to play in the European Under-21 Championships, which kicks off for the 2017 edition this week in Poland.
In honour of this, we take a look back at the best eleven ever to have graced the tournament...
Water is wet, the sky is blue, and Manuel Neuer is the best ‘keeper in the world. Or at least the best to have played in the European Under-21 Championships, as he did in 2009 when he conceded just one goal on the way to another German title. The Bayern Munich stopper has since spent the last eight years winning five Bundesliga titles, the Champions League, and the World Cup.
In 2006, Ivanovic’s Serbia and Montenegro reached the semis, with the defender getting on the scoresheet in the groups, while a year later they went one better, conceding just two goals on the way to the final before losing to the Netherlands. A successful career at Chelsea delivered three Premier Leagues, three FA Cups and a Champions League to the club, before he moved on to Zenit this year.
Across two tournaments in 1994 and 96, Cannavaro conceded just three goals and won it twice as Italy dominated the competition in the 90s. As his professional career developed, Cannavaro won the World Cup, two La Liga titles and became only the third defender to ever win the Ballon d’Or. He is currently manager of Tianjin Quanjian in China.
Another member of the 1996 Italian team, Nesta formed a partnership with Cannavaro that allowed the Azzurrini, and then the Azzurri, to be so good. His combination of pace and tackling made him the dream centre back for a manager, and led to him making over 600 career appearances. After winning two Champions League titles and a World Cup, he is now manager at Miami FC.
A rare breed these days, William Carvalho made the defensive midfielder position his own during the 2015 iteration. The tough-tackler was a big reason Portugal made it all the way to the final last time out, even if he did miss his penalty in the shootout loss to Sweden. The 25-year-old, who has been at Sporting his entire career, was part of the Portugal team that won Euro 2016.
Spain strolled to both the 2011 and 2013 Championships, with Italian-born Thiago playing a major part in both tournaments. After scoring the second in La Rojita’s 2-0 triumph over Switzerland in the final in ’11, he added a hat trick at the same stage two years later in a 4-2 victory over Italy. The Bayern midfielder has won everything at club level in both Spain and Germany, but is still waiting for his first full international honours.
The 2000 Championships marked a perfect tournament for Andrea Pirlo, who won the Golden Player award and the Golden Boot for his three goals as Italy were crowned champions. That was just the start for the midfielder, who has gone on to win six Serie A titles, two Champions Leagues and the World Cup, among many other honours.
The current Arsenal midfielder was only 20 when he began to dominate midfields all around the continent, winning Golden Player in the 2009 tournament as Germany romped to victory. A World Cup medal followed in 2014, along with three FA Cup wins and a La Liga title to boot.
Like his countryman Pirlo, Alberto Gilardino won the Golden Player award and scored four goals, including one in the 2004 final, to win the Golden Boot as Italy emerged victorious. His career probably didn’t quite pan out in the way he may have liked, jumping from one club to another, but he still has winners medals from the Champions League and the World Cup.
Although he only scored one goal in the four games he played in at the 1996 tournament, which came in the semi-finals against France, Totti’s sheer quality shone through and allowed Italy to go on and win the title. The Golden Boy also has a World Cup medal from 2006, and despite winning just a single Serie A title at Roma, he will go down as his club’s greatest ever player.
The runners up in the 1996 tournament were Spain, led by an 18-year-old Raul. He scored an 89th minute winner in the quarter final against the Czech Republic and added another strike in the final, but missed the final penalty in the shootout against Italy. He would go on to win six La Liga titles and a hat trick of Champions Leagues, as well as score over 325 goals for Real Madrid.