Looking for the new Paul Scholes, Thierry Henry, Fernando Torres or Francesco Totti? You would do well to pay attention to the UEFA U-19 Championship now underway in France, as all of those players have appeared in the final of that competition over the past two decades, one played annually.
You might also be surprised to learn the tournament dates back to 1948, and it is, as far as I can tell, the longest-running junior competition in world soccer (CONCACAF’s equivalent U-20 competition began play in 1962; the AFC U-19 tournament began in 1959; the South American Youth Championship was founded in 1954; the African Youth Championship began in 1979, and Oceania’s OFC equivalent started in 1974).
Indeed, it even pre-dates the existence of UEFA (Europe’s governing body was created in 1954) and was originally organised by FIFA, hence its original name, the FIFA junior tournament. That first tournament in 1948 took place in London, with 8 teams taking place. The final was held at White Hart Lane, England defeating the Netherlands 3-2. Indeed, England have been extraordinarily successful in the tournament, perhaps suggesting junior performance is no guarantee of senior success, holding the record with 9 wins (though none since the class of 1993, a team that included Scholes, Gary Neville and Sol Campbell; suggesting in reverse that a lack of junior success is now a predictor of future failure).
England did not defend their title successfully the next year, though: they “lost” to Northern Ireland in the first round following a 3-3 draw in an era that pre-dated penalty kicks following a coin toss. France won the competition held in the Netherlands, beating the Dutch 4-1 at the final in Rotterdam.
England soon embarked on a remarkable run of success at youth level, winning the tournament five times in the course of a decade from 1963 to 1973. But few household names emerged from these teams, Trevor Francis (1973) and Harry Redknapp (1964) rare exceptions. England’s 1975 champion team, though, was packed with talent that would light up English football in the 1980s: the final XI that defeated Finland in the final that year contained Ray Wilkins, Brian Robson, Glenn Hoddle and John Barnes.
Indeed, the champions over the next few years did predict senior success in the 1980s well: the Soviet Union won in 1976 and 1978, with the senior team then reaching the final of the 1988 European Championship; Belgium won at home in Brussels in 1977, and finished in fourth place at the 1986 World Cup; Yugoslavia were champions in 1979, and developed a fantastic team that reached the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup; England were winners again in 1980, and the senior side reached the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup.
The next year, in 1981, UEFA made another change to the competition, making it a U-18 event and renaming it the European Under 18 Football Championship, because in 1978, UEFA had created the UEFA European Under 21 Football Championship, and wanted more variance in the age levels between its junior competitions.
Future success at senior level was again predicted that year with West Germany (1990 World Cup winners) triumphing, and the strong state health of Scottish youth development at that stage was indicated the next year with their victory at the final that year in Helsinki, with future Celtic and Scotland midfield stalwart Paul McStay starring.
UEFA tinkered further with the tournament from 1984 to 1994 as it was briefly made biennial before returning to its usual annual format in 1993. France were the most successful side in the 1990s, ahead of their 1998 World Cup win.
And UEFA made a further change in 2002 that brings us up-to-date in the tournament’s format, again making it a U-19 competition, perhaps because of the growing prominence of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, with the tournament serving as the qualifier for that global event.
Its first staging as a U-19 event again saw Spain win, eight years ahead of global glory, with Fernando Torres the top scorer with four goals, and one Andrés Iniesta their creative force in midfield. As an aside, Dean Ashton scored three times in the competition: eight years later, one wonders if England’s World Cup fortunes might have been different had he been in South Africa as Rooney’s foil. That is the intrigue of these youth competitions: what injuries, what fortune, what acts of chance will determine these players’ futures, with the world at their feet at these times?
Italy won in 2003 at a tournament rather remarkably staged in Liechtenstein, Sampdoria’s Giampaolo Pazzini — who made his debut for Italy’s senior team last year — scoring in the final.
Perhaps the tournament is a predictor of forthcoming senior success: if you were investing in futures on football, you’d want to take a close look at this competition to see the future of senior national teams based on recent history. The most successful two teams in it in the past two decades have been Spain and France with five titles each: both, of course, have in the past 12 years held both the European Championship and World Cup aloft.
Interestingly, in that regard, neither has reached the final in the past two years: in 2008, Germany defeated Italy 3-1, and in 2009, Ukraine won the competition for the first time, defeating England in the final. Keep your eye on Dmytro Korkishko, then, folks: