As football’s meandering, sloshing and endless waves flood every minute of everyone’s life, it’s easy to get lost in its ills and the murkier waters. Its wealth is spread disproportionately among the comparative few – whether broadcasters, clubs or officials – and those beneath are left to frantically tread water. Abuse spews from the isolated (but vocal) few, and then it dominates the conversations of the masses. The disconnect between those in the stands from those on the pitch and in the boardrooms has never been more significant. The game’s gone. Clive.
Mercifully and refreshingly, people are now turning to other avenues to enjoy football in comparatively purer forms. The impressive commercial and viewing figures around the current Women’s World Cup are justly deserved after standing unfairly in the shadow of the men’s game for too long. Local lower and non-league football are enjoying a resurgence in some corners of the country, as fans seek out that intangible essence that once made them fall in love with the game. And over the next two weeks, across the northern hills in the land of Calcio, is another tournament largely free from the shackles and strains of modern elite football that is well worth a watch.
The European U21 Championship, held every two years across a plethora of European nations, allows for an unfiltered look at some of the continent’s brightest talents. Despite UEFA not possessing the greatest track record in organising and awarding recent tournaments, the format is not the same bloated mess that the 2016 senior Euros was. Instead, it is refreshingly simple: three groups of four teams will compete for four semi-final spots, which are awarded to each group winner and the best-placed runner up. No bizarre Nations League leagues and subgroups, no third-placed Hungary advancing to the knockout stages.
This summer’s edition will be played in Italy at some of the nation’s most charming and decorated stadiums, with the essence of Italia 90 and Gazzetta Football Italia still oozing from their aching pores. Bologna’s Stadio Renato Dall’Ara stands as one of the continent’s most beautiful places to watch football, as is Trieste’s Stadio Nereo Rocco. The hosts, one of the tournament favourites, will enjoy rapturous support wherever they go, as evidenced by the wall of noise that greeted a Federico Chiesa brace and Lorenzo Pellegrini penalty in Italy’s 3-1 win against Spain on opening night.
If the thought of charming Italian stadiums, simple knockout football and a break from the all-encompassing circus of elite football is not enough, then the quality of players on show should make watching the tournament an imperative. From established names in Europe’s elite leagues to young starlets bearing the weight of hype and expectation, the tournament features some of Europe’s brightest talent.
Dani Ceballos is one such individual. The Spaniard has featured in 56 games for Real Madrid since moving from Real Betis, including eight Champions League ties. Six appearances for the senior Spanish side has further allowed him to showcase his mesmeric talent; busy and intricate, he slips into gaps between defensive lines and links up play in a mad rush, all whilst time seems to slow to a crawl around him.
Ceballos opened the scoring in the 3-1 loss to an Italian side that features some of Europe’s most established talents; they started with a front three of Moise Kean, Federico Chiesa and Nicolo Zaniolo, who are among Serie A’s most in-form players. But, as the U21 Euros is often about showcasing comparative unknowns, Italian fans will be hoping to see 19-year-old Sandro Tonali continue his hugely impressive season for Brescia in the Azzurri colours.
Tonali has already been likened to Andrea Pirlo, largely due to his wide range of passing from a regista position in a 4-3-3 (his flocking locks admittedly aid the comparison). As well as sweeping balls to onrushing attackers, Tonali possesses an innate awareness of positioning and coordination whilst in transition. Whether intercepting passes and releasing his forwards quickly, or brushing off repeated tackles whilst searching for an out-ball, the young midfielder has shown hugely impressive maturity after 53 Serie B matches. His composure and form even warranted a call-up to the full national side by Roberto Mancini in November last year, after reaching the final of the U19 European Championship.
YOU. YEAH, YOU.
Do you want to be on stage in this guy's position at one of our live shows? Being accosted by a suavely dressed Donaldson while hundreds laugh at your cathartic suffering?
— The Football Ramble (@FootballRamble) June 14, 2019
A huge range of players have gone on to establish themselves as elite footballers in the subsequent years after major U21 honours, which is what makes this summer’s tournament such an exciting prospect. Eight of the Spanish squad that won the 2011 U21 Championship now ply their trade at Europe’s top table, including David de Gea, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Javi Martínez and Thiago. The next iteration of that side, which won the 2013 tournament, featured Asier Illarramendi, Koke, Christian Tello, Isco and Álvaro Morata.
Over in Group C, there is cause for domestic optimism as well. A revitalised England set-up helped the senior side reach both the World Cup and UEFA Nations League semi-finals, though they both ended in seemingly inevitable defeat against better opposition. Bizarrely, the reaction to England’s recent defeat to the Netherlands, on the back of some sloppy defensive mistakes, brought with it the same damning questions and probing investigations into England’s deficiencies as an international side. The U21s, however, are free of any such burden and, with the wealth of riches at Aidy Boothroyd’s disposal, it is an exciting time to be following England’s younger sides.
Led by Jake Clarke-Salter, the 21-year-old Chelsea centre-back who spent last season on loan at Vitesse Arnhem, this England side will hope to fully utilise some of the country’s best talent. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and James Maddison are proven Premier League players, and fringe players like Reiss Nelson and Phil Foden could help make a real impact.
Crucially, this particular England side gives fans a chance to unearth something many feared had been lost: an unaffected enjoyment of quality football. Expecting this team to secure their first victory at the tournament since back-to-back wins in 1982 and 1984 is perhaps a bridge too far. But the journey, not the destination, should be the focus. That is what makes this U21 tournament consistently enjoyable to watch. Gone are tribal tides of emotion, distress and ill feelings – replaced instead by a relaxed and pure enjoyment of quality footballers indulging us in some quality football. That’s what football should be about, and if we have to drop to the U21 European Championship to revel in it, then so be it.