England boss Gareth Southgate believes that winning international trophies at youth level can propel young England players into a career of similar success with the senior team.
England’s under-21 side, who open the European Under-21 Championships when they play Sweden in the tournament curtain raiser today, will be playing under a refined focus following the under-20s’ World Cup triumph last week.
“Once momentum builds and as a country starts winning things, every age group starts saying ‘why not us’,” Southgate said.
“The more you’re in those big matches, the better.”
A glance at the list of recent winners of the under-21 tournament would suggest that Southgate, who coached at this level before taking the top job at Wembley, has a point.
With the exception of reigning champions Sweden, the last three winners of the youth competition all contained players in their squads who would then go on to play a part in their senior side’s best or equal-best performance at major tournaments.
Before Sweden’s triumph in 2015, after which there has only been the 2016 European Championship, the last four winners of the tournament are Spain in 2013 and 2011, Germany in 2009, the Netherlands in 2007 and 2006, and Italy in 2004.
Within two major tournaments to follow those triumphs, the senior teams of Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy all reached lifted silverware with the exception of the Netherlands who still equalled their best ever World Cup result by reaching the final.
Yet closer inspection reveals that the players who were crucial towards under-21 success were rarely as influential when it came to the real big time.
Three players from Italy’s 2004 European under-21 Championship winning squad reached even headier heights two years later when they celebrated winning the World Cup — Italy’s first for 24 years — on the Olympiastadion pitch in Berlin.
Alberto Gilardino, top scorer and player of the 2004 tournament, scored a goal in the group stage and provided an assist for Alessandro Del Piero’s iconic semi-final winner at the World Cup. Centre-back Andrea Barzagli, who has since amassed 68 caps for the Azzurri, made two appearances keeping two clean sheets. Fellow centre-back Cristian Zaccardo also played twice but not to the same effect and neither appeared in the semi-final nor final.
Holland's class of 2006 and 2007 were imperious at youth level, but the Dutchmen were the only European under-21 champions not to then go on to lift either the European Championship nor the World Cup.
They did reach the 2010 World Cup final with a squad that featured five players from the under-21 squad; striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, goalkeeper Michel Vorm, midfielders Stijn Schaars and Ryan Babel, and Edson Braafheid.
Collectively, they appeared in just 30 minutes of the knockout stages.
Germany are perhaps the best example of successful under-21 players propelling their senior side to similar achievements.
Their under-21 team ripped apart England 4-0 in the 2011 final and four players — Jerome Boateng, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Manuel Neuer — apparently developed a taste English blood as they near repeated the trick a year later with a 4-1 over the Three Lions at the 2010 World Cup.
All four, along with Benedikt Howedes, were important members of the triumphant 2014 World Cup squad.
Spanish dominion over all football appeared to be written into the laws of nature in 2013, when the La Roja retained the under-21 European Championship after their senior side had also won Euro 2012, Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
Yet of the team that triumphed in 2011, only Javi Martinez and Juan Mata made in the victorious 2012 side and together they only played 28 minutes — although Mata did score in the final. For the most part, however, the class of 2011 and 2013 is yet to carry on the legacy set by their predecessors.