The UEFA u21 Championship gets slowly bigger every two years, but remains half in shadow, a curious sideshow to the bigger tournaments.
Clashing with the FIFA Confederations Cup meant more international eyes were focused on South Africa, even in UEFA's backyard, since two European nations were involved (Italy & Spain). In Britain this led to an interesting media rivalry between Sky, the tournament rights holders, and the BBC, who were showing the Confederations Cup and did their best to ignore the U21s, even waiting until the following day to post results on their website, despite England's participation.
The attendances in Sweden ranged from 3,000 to the 20,000 capacity of the new stadia in Malmo and Gothenburg when the hosts were playing. Clearly, the show is not big enough yet to take to the super stadia of the continent. Should England for instance host it, Millwall's The New Den (20,000) would make more sense than Arsenal's Emirates (60,000) as a capital venue. Malmo's new stadium is an interesting exercise in dark minimalism, a brooding hulk of a spacecraft against the long Scandinavian summer evenings, as if from '2001 A Space Odyssey', or as UEFA described it 'something out of Star Wars'.
It and the New Gamla (old) Ullevi in Gothenburg had perfect sightlines inside though lacked character like all new venues do. Compared to its iconic older brother, a feature of the skyline of Sweden's second city, it is hidden away between buildings and hard to spot. Both arenas' size reminded me of MLS stadia, although unlike those American examples, both were roofed for Northern Europe. Happily, the familiar eliptical rooves of the old stadia in both cities remain, with the new grounds built cheek by jowl.
The two other venues, Helsingborg (12,500) and Halmstad (7,500) were real charmers, especially the tranquil forested riverside stadium in Halmstad. Both used for the 1958 World Cup, they dated originally from 1898 and 1922.
You would have known a tournament was on in Sweden as UEFA repeated their FanZone experiment of Euro 2008 in the host cities, although as in the beer tents of Euro '92, most locals were probably there for the cheap ale and sausages. It was midsummer in Sweden, their biggest national fest and a time for relaxation more than enthusiasm anyway. But no complaints about the host. Everything went smoothly as far as I could see, although scheduling late kick offs in small cities without enough hotel beds was not kind to the fans.
As for the football, what U21 players do is intrinsically less important than what they will do next. It remains, in the words of UEFA's Technical Director Andy Roxburgh, 'the final stepping stone' for footballers on their way to the big time. That was at the back of the mind of everyone watching, knowing that the teams on show were about to break up and that only a smattering of those in Sweden will be there in the next u21 tournament in two years' time. Perhaps for that reason, tactical innovation seemed absent, too.
It is hard to know what to read into the different teams' performances given the lack of a clear correlation over the years between this competition and the big ones. France were world and European champions at the end of the 1990s but never reached a u21 final in that decade. Ditto Spain in the noughties. If there is a pattern to pick out here it is that Germany have won the most recent u17, u19 and now u21 competitions.
And what is also notable about Germany is that for the first time their team is predominantly non-Teutonic. A few years ago a Deutsche Elftal would never have had a Mesut Ozil, Gonzalo Castro, Anis Ben-Hatira, Ashkan Dejagah, Sami Khedira and Chinedu Ede on the same field. Are Germany's immigrant offspring propelling them to greater heights? Could be.
The national styles were clearly embossed on the young players: Germany were ruthlessly efficient, the Italians solid and skilful throughout, Serbia were tough and England talented but reckless.
The scouts, over 100 official ones, were buzzing around as usual, but most stars have already been spotted by their late teens. Take Finland's jaunty young striker Teemu Pukki for instance, 19 years of age and playing for Sevilla in Spain.
In my earlier post I listed the 15 or so players we will be hearing more of in years to come who played in Sweden, but it is still too early to be sure who will be the greatest. Michael Ballack, Raul and Zinedine Zidane graced the U21s previously, although no-one probably foresaw all that they would achieve then. If I had to stick my neck out I would go for Marcus Berg, Mesut Ozil and Mario Balotelli as seasoned international stars of the future.
The promotional literature included Giuseppe Rossi and Theo Walcott prominently, but the former was at the Confederations Cup and the latter disappointed in Sweden, cryingly isolated alone up front in the final.
England arrived as favourites and were still the bookies' tip up until the final, before they collapsed humiliatingly 0-4 to a tactically astute Germany. Three key suspensions in the semi-final killed their chances, exposing Stuart Pearce's decision to bring only three forwards (two of whom were ruled out by cards), while replacement goalkeeper Scott Loach echoed Peter Bonetti's calamity replacing Gordon Banks in Mexico 1970.
If Pearce can take some succour from this setback it is that England have been genuine contenders for the last two U21 tournaments and could have won this one with some better discipline in the semi-final.
Other nations have more worries, particularly Spain, who left with a whimper and, as if in a timewarp, played exactly like their national team always used to pre-Euro 2008.
All in all a successful tournament for fans and football and UEFA were happy too. Euro 2012 remains their big headache, although a blazered official assured me it will go ahead in Ukraine even with one venue, because of political pressures regarding Europe's gas supplies pumping from Russia via their neighbour.
The 2011 edition of the U21s will be in the Jutland peninsula of neighbouring Denmark at Viborg (9,566), Aalborg (10,500), Herning (11,800) and Aarhus (21,000).
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile
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