It makes sense to suppose that if your players are good- good enough to win an international tournament when they’re under 21- then they should be able to put together decent tournament performances in their mid-20s and beyond. Certainly, looking at the list of recent European U-21 champions seems to bear this out. Going back to 2004, the winners have been Spain (twice), Germany, the Netherlands (twice) and Italy. These are great football nations. So far, so good.
But what about the losing finalists? The list is slightly less illustrious, including teams such as Ukraine, Serbia (twice, once in their S&M guise), Switzerland and, erm, England. Furthermore, out of the last six finals, only two have been won by less than a three goal margin, and one of those was the pasting Spain laid on Italy last summer, which ended 4-2.
That makes things a little more uncertain. Getting to a tournament final is no small achievement, yet there is little-to-no consistency among finalists, whereas the winners are fairly constant. Leaving out countries which don’t exist anymore (i.e. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union), only six different nations have ever won a European U-21 title. It’s a good reflection of the World Cup in that sense. But it does leave one wondering whether or not U-21 is any kind of indicator of real quality to come.
England’s performances at European U-21 level have been up and down to say the least. After an incredible period from 1978-1988 in which the team made the semi-finals six times in a row, winning the tournament twice, they then failed to even qualify again until 2000.
Oddly, the years when those from the late-70s/80s golden era would’ve been expected to mature (the early-80s to early-90s) were generally lean times for the national game, barring that one World Cup semi-final appearance which birthed the whole penalty psychosis we now seem stuck with. By the same token, things started to pick up in the late-90s and early-2000s, the time when those who had ‘failed’ as U-21 players, such as David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand, came to the forefront of the senior team. People may have bemoaned getting to consecutive tournament quarterfinals in the mid-2000s, but disappointing performances aside, losing to Brazil/ Portugal on penalties was a heck of a lot better than what went before.
Enough of the teams though, what about the actual players?
The realm of the U-21 cap is a strange one indeed. Some of the best English players of the last twenty years have had barely any U-21 experience at all.
Twenty influential Englishmen and their U-21 records:
It stands to reason, really; ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ as the saying goes. The best players are plucked from the youth ranks and placed straight in with the seniors. Rooney had his dazzling debut for England aged just 17, for example, and hasn’t once been troubled with a mere U-21 call-up. Part of the reason for England’s poor performance at last year’s Euros in Israel (though not many pointed it out amidst all the wailing) was that some of the best U-21-eligible players such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere were occupied with the senior side. Germany endured a similarly embarrassing campaign, and they suffered from the same problem, with Julian Draxler and Mario Götze entrenched in the senior setup. Spain, on the other hand, have such quality in depth that they were able to supply both an overflow of full internationals for World Cup qualifiers, and leave mega-talents such as Isco and Thiago Alcantara for the U-21s, and as such won the tournament at a canter.
Whilst only the best footballing nations seem to win U-21 tournaments, in England at least, the best players are not the ones with the most U-21 caps. It’s quite the opposite. Mainstays of the England team since 2002, such as Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, all have less than 10 appearances at that level (though to varying extents, they do have some experience at U-18 and below). Meanwhile, those with the most caps to their name are generally the more marginal players, who haven’t always been guarantees to make the squad, let alone the starting eleven.
For further evidence of this trend, look at this year’s three FIFA Ballon d’Or nominees. Franck Ribery has thirteen French U-21 caps to his name, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo has only six for Portugal, being as he was steadily brought through the rankings from U-17, to U-20 and upwards. Lionel Messi has made eighteen appearances for the Argentinean U-20s over the course of his career, but began playing for the senior side aged just 18, one year after his U-20 debut.
But does the fast-tracking of young stars to the senior side mean it’s all over for the current crop of highly-capped English U-21 players? Hardly. James Milner, with his uniquely huge cap total of 46, is now an established and reliable squad member for the seniors. Gareth Barry has also gone on to have a solid, if unspectacular, England career. The same can be said of Michael Carrick, and probably Jamie Carragher in his time as well.
A look down the lists of other major European nations’ top ten most-capped junior players yields similar results. See Daniel de Ridder (former Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City legend) and Kiki Musampa (former Atletico Madrid stalwart) sitting proudly in the Netherlands’ top ten. Fabian Ernst and Sebastian Rudy for the Germans; two of the most solidly inconspicuous defensive midfielders you’re ever likely to see. Spain’s probably has a little more stardust, mostly from the past ten years with the likes of Xavi and Iker Muniain, but even they have players in there who remind us of the era before everything in Spanish football was gilded gold. Have you ever heard of Santiago Denia? Me neither, but he played for Spain’s U-21s a joint-record 27 times.
The trend is quite clear- if a player has spectacular talent, they will be whisked pretty rapidly into their country’s senior squad, unless that country happens to be Spain, in which case they might have a bit of a wait on. Otherwise, the U-21 side tends to be the preserve of either those talented souls 19 or below, who are just biding their time before making the inevitable jump to senior level, or those whose enormous aptitude for the game has taken them in to the professional ranks, but so far held them back from its very top tier.
But there is room for crossover, especially in the current England setup. Once aging stars such as Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole have passed into international retirement, their place will have to be taken by someone. Will we see Danny Rose (29 junior caps and still only 23) in the England squad a few years from now? It’s possible. Jordan Henderson (27 junior caps, also 23) is having the best season of his career, and could be in line for a squad place as soon as this summer if he continues to impress. There may even be other late-bloomers, such as Lampard once was, who will come to be perennial England players out of relative international anonymity.
The conclusion here has to be that looking to the U-21s as the most telling indicator of a country’s footballing future is probably folly. As we’ve seen, the bulk of the best international-calibre talent tends to reside there only briefly before stepping up to the top level. As such it is an odd mixture of shooting stars destined for greater things, and those on the cusp of establishing themselves as an international player, for whom the 22 or 23 year age limit for being considered a ‘youth’ player is looming, and whose career could still go either way. England might still disappoint you, and still occasionally crash out on penalties, but thought about that way, the U-21 format can make for a very compelling watch.