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The UEFA Under-21 European Championship 2015 is upon us, as Portugal meet Sweden for the crown of European youth champions. Despite a number of sterling performances at this competition, however, success at this level doesn’t always translate to a career at the pinnacle of the game, as Mathew Burt explains…
“Don’t….don’t…don’t believe the hype” was the message from US rappers Public Enemy in 1988, and these wise words from Chuck D and Flavor Flav ring true when you look at some of the stars to emerge from previous European Under-21 Championships.
Young players often take the tournament by storm and are feted as the next big thing, only for their careers to fail to live up to the expectations. Here at Just Football let’s take a look back at some of the U21 wonderkids who ended up flattering to deceive, as a word of warning to this U21 Euro 2015 generation of talents…
Renato Buso (Italy)
We’re going back a few years with the first one, but in 1992 young midfielder Renato Buso was marked out as the tournament’s finest player as Italy U21s triumphed over Sweden to win the first of three consecutive titles.
Buso was targeted for greatness from a young age having won the Serie A title with Juventus as a 16-year-old in 1985/86. He helped win the 1991 Supercoppa Italiana with Sampdoria before starring at the 1992 Olympics and emerging as top scorer in Italy’s 1992 U21 triumph.
The prodigy scored in both legs of Italy’s semi-final win over Denmark as well as opening the scoring in the first-leg of the final versus Sweden, paving the way for a 2-1 aggregate win.
His career however failed to live up to the promise and he wandered from Napoli to Lazio, Piacenza, Cagliari and Spezia before retiring in 2003.
Francesc Arnau (Spain)
Another player to unfortunately not quite match the high expectations put upon him was Spanish goalkeeper Francesc Arnau. Spain’s U21 Euro triumph in 1998 was built upon the solid bedrock of a watertight defence with Arnau a key to that.
Arnau kept three clean-sheets at the U21 Euro in 1998 and was voted player of the tournament. He joined Barcelona as a teenager and was given his La Liga debut by Bobby Robson in 1996, in a team that included Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique. But Arnau struggled to be anything more than a back-up to Vitor Baia and then Ruud Hesp at the Nou Camp.
Arnau spent 10 years at Malaga after joining them in 2001, but relegation in 2006 saw him ultimately lose his place and it was a case of what could have been for the talented keeper.
Elegido Balón de Oro del Europeo sub-21 de 1998, no pudo triunfar en el Barça. El meta Francesc Arnau cumple 40 años. pic.twitter.com/dxUhJuqKKL
— Falso 9 (@falso9web) May 23, 2015
Royston Drenthe (Netherlands)
The career path of Dutchman Royston Drenthe is warning to any hyped U21 star that they really should not get taken away with the attention. He was simply brilliant in helping the Netherlands to triumph in the 2007 tournament on home soil.
A menace down the left as either a full-back or in midfield, Drenthe’s heroics earned him a spectacular move to Real Madrid. He had a pretty decent first season at the Bernabeu, making 18 league appearances in a title-winning season, but that was his pinnacle.
Drenthe was loaned out to Hercules and then Premier League side Everton. Unable to reach the same levels as in 2007, he ended up in the depths of Russia with Alania Vladikavkaz, with spells at Reading and Sheffield Wednesday.
He currently plays for Kayseri Erciyesspor in Turkey – not quite what those with the footballing crystal ball predicted.
Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Groningen striker Marcus Berg burst onto the scene in 2009 in a blaze of goals. A hat-trick in Sweden’s opener with Belarus was followed by a brace in the final group match with Serbia to set-up a semi-final clash with England.
Two further goals arrived in a 3-3 draw before things turned sour for Berg. He missed the first penalty in the shoot-out which the host nation would ultimately lose 5-4.
However, Berg won the Golden Boot with seven goals and was named the tournament’s best player, and three weeks later a lucrative €10.5m move to the Bundesliga with Hamburg ensued. Things started well with a debut goal after just 182 seconds but his form never returned and he was loaned to PSV for a season before HSV cut their losses and sold him to Panathinaikos.
He’s found the goal trail in Greece, but it wasn’t quite the career trajectory many foresaw following his exploits in 2009.
Maceo Rigters (Netherlands)
It may have been Royston Drenthe who was voted the Player of the Tournament in 2007, but it certainly wasn’t a one-man team. Four goals from striker Maceo Rigters contributed hugely. His spectacular 90th minute bicycle-kick equaliser in the semi-final was superb and he notched up two Man of the Match awards during the tournament and tournament top scorer.
Blackburn Rovers signed him following the Euros, but he failed to shine at Ewood Park. An inability to breakthrough and injuries limited him to just two games for the Lancashire side. Subsequent loan spells at Norwich, Barnsley and Willem II also failed to provide a spark.
After becoming a free-agent and with no takers in Europe, Rigters headed ‘Down Under’ to try his luck with Gold Coast United, and was last seen playing in the eighth tier of Dutch football at ZSGOWMS carrying a few extra pounds, shall we say…
Remember Maceo Rigters, top scorer of the 2007 European U21 championships? Here he is now at ZSGOWMS (via AD) pic.twitter.com/FD0fid1L7L
— Dutch Football (@football_oranje) January 14, 2015
Sebastian Giovinco (Italy)
Italy’s own ‘atomic ant’ as he was nicknamed seemed destined for greatness following a highly impressive tournament in 2009 even though the Italians fell at the semi-final stage. His creative energies really grabbed the attention, which perhaps wasn’t surprising as he had been voted the MVP at the 2008 Toulon tournament.
A return to Turin followed but the same problems occurred and surprisingly at the age of just 28, the once-hot prospect has moved across the Atlantic to try his luck in MLS with Toronto FC.
Sandro Wagner (Germany)
Six of Germany’s triumphant U21 side from 2009 went on to become members of the 2014 World Cup winning side in Brazil. The likes of Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira and Mats Hummels all made the transition from the junior ranks to the full international side.
One player at the time also predicted for just such a trajectory was striker Sandro Wagner – scorer of two goals in the final. Not quite able to make the breakthrough at Bayern Munich it was thought that the young striker would find his niche elsewhere in the Bundesliga and ultimately become a success.
The goals however just haven’t followed at spells with Duisburg, Werder Bremen. Kaiserslautern and Hertha Berlin. A penny for his thoughts as he watched so many of his former U21 colleagues lifting the World Cup.
Dídac Vilà (Spain)
U21 wonderkid left-back Dídac Vilà played every minute of every game as Luis Milla’s youngsters won the 2011 European Championship. He was a key player and deservedly made it into UEFA’s team of the tournament.
Vila seemingly had a great career ahead of him when AC Milan signed him from Espanyol, but like so many before him the reality did not equate to the expectation.
One solitary appearance for the Italian giants has led to successive loan spells at Betis and Eibar. Injuries didn’t help, and if once he was touted as Spain’s next left-back, he now finds himself miles behind the likes of Jordi Alba, Cesar Azpilicueta, Juan Bernat, Nacho Monreal and Alberto Moreno.