• Paddy McAlpin

The Greatest (U21 team) to have ever played the game (specifically in the European Championships)

It’s the biggest tournament that nobody watches: the U21 European Championships. UEFA.com reported that when digital viewers were taken into account for the final of the 2019 tournament that records were broken – though they would say that, it’s their tournament! The final itself attracted a whopping 4.7 million viewers... just less than the population of Jinan in China (heard of it? No, me neither).

So why? Why is a tournament that showcases the greatest young talents of major footballing nations (and Iceland and Hungary) so often ignored? Well, it might be because the information about where to watch it is appalling. UEFA.com, perhaps? No thanks. Well then, streaming – and let’s be honest, that’s not ideal. Put it on the BBC and promote it and maybe we’ll pay attention. This year, the group stage takes place 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. Got plans for that time? No, me neither.

So, as a student of the game, and as someone who actually enjoys the tournament, I want to show you why I’m not as painfully apathetic as everyone else in the football-watching world. Who else can say that they saw the potential in Royston Drenthe and correctly predicted the global megastar that he would become? Okay, maybe I missed the ball on that one, but Drenthe was a beast in the 2007 tournament.

So, based on squads that have entered the tournaments that I could see on Wikipedia, I’ve compiled a top ten list of mythical starting line ups. These are not the teams that the managers of those squads actually selected, possibly because they don’t have an astute a footballing brain as I do. I’ve gone as far back as 1994, because that’s roughly when football began. Have a look at these teams and drool!

10. Scotland '96

The finest blend of whisky and porridge that Scotland has ever produced - The Scotland Under 21 team of 96

I want to start by saying that this is a totally impartial review and my being Scottish has no influence on who I selected. That being said, let’s bring the big guns right out of the gate: Scotland 96. Derek Stillie between the sticks means that you’ve got someone solid at the back, and, if we’re being really honest with ourselves, the Scotland team need that because they’re going to spend a lot of time defending. But, but: check out the spine of that team – Christian Dailly and Steven Pressley at centre back, lots of no-nonsense defending and lumped clearances up to the forwards. Good job really, as the midfield is a bit...well...lacking. Charlie Miller seems to be the creative force in there and with Steven Crawford as the go-to goal-getter, it’s best that Scotland focus on grinding out some 1-0 wins.

Rating: 3/10. Alright, perhaps there's a little bias included, but I couldn't exclude my countrymen. This team would probably beat the England team that lost to Iceland, but only because Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington would have gone to have a look at Loch Lomond rather than actually scouting the Scotland team.

9. Czechoslovakia '94

The excellent Czechoslovakia Under 21 side of 94

This is a weird one. Czechoslovakia wasn't a country in 1994... A quick check on Wikipedia gave me this: “despite the end of the country in January 1993, the team played until March 1994, fulfilling its fixtures in the UEFA U-21 Championship as a combined team.” That explains that then: the Czech Republic and Slovakia put aside their differences to field an absolutely immense team in the 1994 championships.

I’ll be honest – there are some players here that even I had never heard of: the dreaded curse of the U21 internationals struck a few of them it seems. However, look at the spine of that team. Look at it! My goodness: the back line is fantastic. Tomáš Řepka was a terrifying human being who turned out for West Ham from 2001-2005 so any long balls in the air are being won by him. Ujfaluši played in the Fiorentina and Atlético Madrid teams, so there’s plenty of quality there. Not only that, the great Petr Gabriel comes in a left back, though now that I think about it, it seems implausible that he was playing in the tournament at the same time as being a global music megastar.

As good as the defence is, look at that midfield. There’s some steel there: Galásek will be looking to win the ball and pass it onto his more illustrious peers: Poborský can use those magic feet of his and Nedvěd can mesmerise with his brilliance.

Up front, the human battering ram that is Jan Koller will benefit from the support of Liverpool’s Vladimír Šmicer and Sparta Prague’s Vratislav Lokvenc.

Rating: 7/10. That side is very tasty and has some serious strength in the spine. However, the midfield lacks a bit of cover and the attack is not as lethal as you would hope.

8. Belgium '07

For the past few years, Belgium have been seen as dark horses to win tournaments, fuelled by the creative powers of Kevin de Bruyne and the lethal finishing of Romelu Lukaku. However, they weren’t always the football factory that we now know them as. In fact, prior to 2014 they were actually pretty rubbish.

However, every great team had to start somewhere, and for this great team that somewhere was 2007. Some notable players stand out when you look at this XI: the spine of the team looks pretty handy, in particular. Though there are some players that I’ve never heard of (having up front and the goalkeeping position, as well as left back seems very light indeed), having Axel Witsel pulling the strings in midfield and Marouane Fellaini throwing his barnet around like a poor man’s Carlos Valderrama, then you’ve got an interesting central pairing.

Behind them, Vertonghen and Vermaelen are an imperious pairing: this team looks set up to keep a clean sheet. If I’m honest though, Anthony Vanden Borre is in there because he was pretty good on Football Manager.

Overall: 7/10

7. England '15

OK, I had to think long and hard about including the auld enemy, but this really was a great team. In fact, you could argue that they're one of the few teams not to lose any players to the Under-21 curse...

There’s a lot of talk about the “Golden Generation”, but’s let’s be honest: Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Beckham, Owen and everyone else fell short against superior opposition. It’s easy to criticise them for “not showing passion” or whatever else, but there is no shame in losing to Brazil and that squad in 2002.

This team, though, was bristling with potential. Jack Butland in goal provided a solid, if unspectacular figure between the sticks and the triumvirate of Keane, Stones and Jenkinson (my selection, not Stuart Pearce’s) should have been immense. And look at that midfield 3: JWP doesn’t need much of an invitation to rattle one into the top corner from a set piece, Will Hughes is a golden-haired wonder boy and RLC is a verified talisman.

In an unbelievably attacking line-up (again, my choice, not Pearce’s - the bloody coward) this side would have fired in goals left, right and centre: Nathan Redmond and Jesse Lingard would have been drenched in goals and assists for the lethal finishing of Harry Kane and Danny Ings.

As it turned out though, Pearce’s England limped out at group stages (perhaps he just wasn't cut out for management) having lost to Italy and Portugal – their only points came in a 1-0 win against Sweden. How very English.

Overall: 7/10

In theory, this team would have been on fire with goal scoring potential, but lacked cohesion and probably used the wrong tactics. Defending the flanks would have been an issue and we all know what would happen if this team took anyone on after extra time...

6. Spain '13

Spain’s youth teams have been spectacular for the past 20 years, and this squad had the best of the lot. That back line of Martinez, Carvajal Bartra and Muniesa is fire. So much skill and ability there it’s actually sickening. I suppose David de Gea is pretty decent too, if you like world-class goalkeepers.

In midfield, it’s a pretty similar story: Canales, Isco and Alacantra can continue with the Tiki Taka tradition of Spanish football and Sarabia and Koke can threaten from the wings. Iker Muniain is a superb player but his scoring record for Bilbao and Spain leaves a little to be desired.

Overall: 8/10

This is a great squad who would play some scintillating football. Would they score goals though? Maybe not. Watch out for record-breaking possession stats and lots of 0-0 draws. (Please don’t look at what happened in the actual tournament – I'm quite, quite wrong about this)

5. Netherlands '98

From a team that, on paper at least, should have dominated games but struggled to score goals to a team that should have been scoring them for fun. As I love a back three, I’ve gone for the peerless (not actually peerless. Peerful?) combination of Fernando Ricksen, Wigan and Chelsea’s Mario Melchiot and Jürgen Dirkx who played for PSV for a bit. These guys would do a job, but I’m not sure that this team would grind out many wins, so – to midfield!

This is where the generals are: I’d love to see the Spain midfield of 2013 do battle with this one: Spain trying to dominate the ball and George Boateng and Mark van Bommel trying to do battle to the death to win it back! Kiki Musampa, Nordin Wooter and Arnold Bruggink then bring the shiny-booted flair and up top is where the money lies...

Roy Makaay is a quality striker: 79 goals for Deportivo La Coruña, 78 for Bayern München and 256 in his career means that he’s deadly. The man next who him is pretty tasty too. Half man, half horse: Ruud van Nistelrooy. These boys could kill a game with half a chance: that’s why they place above Spain’s 2013 team, just.

Overall: 8/10

Again, this team should blow others away given half a chance. Goals could come from anywhere in that midfield and attack, but questions remain over the leakiness of their defence. In reality, despite being able to field a team with a million professional goals behind them, the Netherlands went out in the semi-final of the 1998 tournament to Greece. Two goals from Nikos Liberopoulos did for them and we all remember him...right? Right?

4. Portugal '94

Looking at that Netherlands team and the Spain team before it, I think perhaps I’ve ranked these incorrectly but it’s a mythical line-up and nothing really matters anymore – at the moment life is a pointless void of misery so let’s focus on football!

The Portuguese squad of 1994 was based around a few star players – Jorge Costa, the hero of Porto (possibly not an actual hero), Abel Xavier (that hair), Rui Costa (woof– that man was brilliant) and Sa Pinto. None of them, though, would have been mentioned in this article if it weren’t for the presence of Luis (beloved in every country by every football fan) Figo. A man so talented that he could play for Barcelona and Real and not be hated by everyone. Plus he put in a star turn in a number of superb Nike adverts...

The defence is solid and the midfield contains two bona-fide football geniuses – they could dominate a tournament. There are, however, questions over the attack and goalkeeper – this keeps them out of the top three.

Overall: 8/10

This team could probably annoy an England team into a penalty shoot-out and then win lots of matches 1-0. Against the next three teams though, you’d fear for them

3. Germany '98

Again, no one chose this line-up but me. As you can see, I love a back three. As it turns out, this team did badly, historically – if they’d chosen my line-up, maybe they wouldn’t have lost 1-0 to Greece in the quarter finals. And you all know how terribly that loss affected them: they haven’t gone on to win anything in ages!

To the team! Goalkeeper – quality. Back three, meh. Metzelder was decent and he was, at least, ridiculously tall (1.94 metres) so they have no issues defending high balls. His partners though, well.

In midfield there are some standout players: Lars Ricken could track up and down the flanks and Danny Schwarz will do a solid job but Michael Ballack is the real star of this show. With him in the side, you know he’s going to drag the German team to victory. In front of him is a great combination: Thomas Brdarić would do all the hard work before Miroslav Klose scored a hatful of goals and got all the glory.

Overall: 8/10

This team should have been great. With a coach brave enough to play a back three and dominate possession with that midfield, creating chances for those forwards they should have shone. Shame Greece had to spoil the party.

2. France '94

Looking at this squad, if you didn’t make a slightly awkward noise that you wish your partner hadn’t heard then you probably don’t know anything about football. It the sort of squad that makes me want to hunt that darkest (not the actual darkest) recesses of the internet to find footage of them playing together. It also explains why the Zidane-Makélélé combination was so sublime: they played together for ages.

Again though, this is not the team that actually started the competition. There’s a reason why I managed to get Newport County to win the Champions League on Football manager though, and these players in this team would have dominated.

In goal, Richard Dutruel is a solid performer and the defensive line-up in front of him is majestic. Goma, Thuram and Dehu were all wonderful in their primes (Oumar Dieng played for loads of teams, starring for none).

In midfield, this the engine room – Zidane is a master of all he surveys, he’ll be taking that ball, thanks, and doing whatever he wants with it. Hopefully not headbutting anyone in this tournament though. Makélélé does what Makélélé does and wins every ball, delivering simple passes to more technically-gifted players.

Up front, this French squad is superb: Pascal Nouma was a free-scoring centre forward who won trophies with PSG and Christophe Dugarry played for Milan, Barcelona and Marseille (before inexplicably turning out for Birmingham City – his agent let him down a bit there).

Overall: 9/10

This team has quality all over it and in Zidane they have a verified super-hero; with him, anything is possible. They should, in theory, be able to dispose of all who come before them, but it took a little while for them all to mature and they finished fourth in the tournament, losing to Spain in the play off.

1. Italy '96

Okay, before you look at this team, find somewhere safe to sit down. Make sure there are pillows around you so that if you pass out from how great they are, you have somewhere soft to fall on. Now, slowly, lest you hurt your eyes...look at the line-up. Yeah, majestic aren’t they?

In goal, probably the greatest goalkeeper of all time. In a U21 tournament, he must have looked like everyone’s grandfather. In front of him: look at that back four. There’s not a weak link in there. It’s insane how good they are. Cannavaro is a prince among centre backs, and in case he’s not good enough he has Alessandro flipping Nesta next to him. Alessandro flipping Nesta. Surely that’s unfair on other nations that those three players were allowed in the same team? Well, thankfully there are some weaknesses in that defence...oh no: Christian Panucci and Salvatore Fresi make up the back four. Well, they’re never conceding a goal. I think that back four would still stand a chance against most modern teams. Imagine them in a five a side football tournament. They wouldn’t need a fifth! They could probably pick a decent one from the rest of the squad though... we’ll get there in a minute.

In the midfield, it’s typical Italian fare: a quality holding player – Alessio Tacchinardi, whose solid positioning and ball-winning ability gives some freedom to the attacking options of Brambilla and Ametrano. Again, the coach didn’t actually select this team – they probably played 4-4-2.

Up front is stunning. Nicola Amoruso was an absolute beast in his playing career, playing for Juventus, Napoli and Parma. Up top with him is Marco Delvecchio who scored 77 goals for Roma. And the last man to be mentioned, and one of the greatest players in living memory is Francesco Totti. What a player, what an icon, what a fifth in the best five a side team of all time. This team was ridiculous and even without my tactical nous managed to win the tournament in real life too.

Overall: 11/10

What an insane team. Imagine being an Italy fan at this time, wondering who the young guns were that were coming through. There’s no weakness in this team and it’s full of stand-out players.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I will be tuning in to watch the U21 European Championships on the 24th of March – as long as it’s not cancelled...

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