The pictures are still fresh in the memories, and the feelings too. In Poland in 2017, the German U21 national team became European champions for the second time. The team will want to build on the triumph in Krakow at this year’s tournament in Italy and San Marino, with the German campaign beginning in Udine against Denmark on Monday (21:00 CEST). However, Germany’s history of the tournament shows that it will be no simple task.
On 10th October 1979, the German U21 team played their first competitive fixture in Torun, Poland and lost 1-0 to the hosts. Amongst the 14 players who featured were Pierre Littbarski, Rudi Völler, Thomas Allofs and Joachim Löw. Despite the defeat, the game was the starting point of one of the strongest youth sides in German football history.
Previously, the competition was not played in the current tournament form, but consisted of home-and-away knockout games. In spring 1982, Berti Vogt’s Germany defeated Spain (0-1 and 2-0) and the Soviet Union (4-3 and 5-0) to reach the final, where they would face England. The final was supposed to happen before the 1982 World Cup in Spain, but as head coach Jupp Derwall wanted to call up some of the U21 squad, the game was moved, to the Autumn with UEFA’s consent.
The first team then played in October 1982, just one day after the second leg against England, with Derwall calling up Köln’s Gerd Strack, one of two ‘senior’ members of the U21 squad, Lothar Matthäus and Völler. Therefore, the task of overturning a 3-1 defeat in the first leg was made even harder. Vogts claimed, “Something like this won’t happen again in the future. I will push for all U21 games to be played in the previous season. The team has to pay the price for their decision.”
The U21 team did in fact win the second leg in front of a crowd of 10,00, but the 3-2 victory in Bremen was not enough to prevail over two legs. After a goalless first half, England took the lead before being pegged back by a goal from Littbarki (53’). Goddard then replenished the English lead in the 77th minute, but Littbarkski found the net twice more (80’, 84). Vogts congratulated the British side, “they were the better team” and summarised, “we haven’t achieved our goal of becoming European champions, so we can’t be 100% pleased.”
The German U21 team’s next appearance at the European finals was 16 years later in 1998. But the side fell to defeat at the first round, losing 1-0 to Greece. The U21 side, which consisted of future World Cup runners up Michael Ballack and Lars Ricken, finished the tournament in fifth place, after defeating host nation Romania.
In 2004, Germany hosted the championship but still had to go through the qualification process. Uli Stielike’s side did so successfully and faced Sweden, Portugal and Switzerland in the group stage and had to reach the semi-finals in order to book their place in the Olympic Games in Athens in the same year. Of course, the target was the title for the squad with the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski. Unfortunately, a 2-1 victory against Switzerland was followed by a pair of 2-1 defeats. Schweinsteiger said he needed two days to come to terms with the outcome of the tournament, before travelling to the European Championships in Portugal with the first team.
The U21s reached the finals once against in 2006, but another group-stage exit was on the cards. The German side lost out to France (0-3) and hosts Portugal (0-1) and only tasted victory against Serbia and Montenegro (1-0). The most famous names in the squad were Stefan Kießling and Roberto Hilbert. Germany fell at the quarters in the following tournament, losing to long-standing rivals England (0-1/0-2).
The hard work with the youth set up finally began to bear fruit. In October 2008, the U21 side defeated France in the qualifying playoff to reach the 2009 tournament. Benedikt Höwedes’ last minute goal was the highlight of the 1-0 win. After a slow start with a 0-0 draw to Spain, the national team picked up their first three points with a 2-0 victory over Finland. Höwedes was amongst the goals again, alongside Ashkan Dejagah. A 1-1 draw against England (goal scored by Gonzalo Castro) secured qualification to the knockout stages where Germany saw off Italy 1-0 thanks to a goal from Stuttgart’s Andreas Back.
In the final in Malmö, Germany’s young players enjoyed a very strong and convincing performance. On 29th June 2009, the U21 side became European Champions for the first time in their history with a 4-0 victory over England. Castro opened the scoring after 23 minutes. After half time, Mesut Özil found the back of the net with a free kick and a strong defence lead by Jérôme Boateng and Höwedes saw Germany edge towards the title. A late brace from Sandro Wagner (79’, 84’) secured the trophy and rounded off a convincing result. DFB Director Matthias Sammer, who was among the 20,000-strong crowd in Malmö, said, “the recent success in each of the three junior levels shows that our work is paying off, but we can’t take our foot off the gas.”
However, a setback followed. Title defence was the goal, but the national team failed to qualify for the finals in Denmark. The U21 side finished third in their qualification group, behind Czech Republic and Iceland. In Israel 2013, qualification was achieved but the team lost to eventual winners Spain (0-1) and Netherlands (2-3), only picking up one win (2-1 against Russia) and did not qualify for the knockout stages.
The side reached the semi-finals in 2015 in the Czech Republic, after drawing 1-1 with Spain and the hosts and beating Denmark 3-0, who won the group. The Germany team, which included the likes of Marc-André ter Stegen, Matthias Ginter, Kevin Volland and Max Meyer then suffered a very disappointing day in Olmütz, losing 5-0 to Portugal. It was their highest ever defeat and came after a 20 match unbeaten run. Nevertheless, Germany’s men’s side had qualified for the Olympics for the first time in almost 25 years. Horst Hrubech’s side won the silver medal in Rio, losing out to Brazil on penalties. His side featured a number of prominent names such as Serge Gnabry, Niklas Süle, Jeremy Toljan, Max Meyer and Davie Selke.
Stefan Kuntz’s side won their first two group stage matches in 2017 against the Czech Republic (2-0) and Denmark (3-0), but slipped to a 1-0 defeat against bogey-team Italy. The semi-final against England in Tychy tested the side’s nerves as it went to penalties again, mainly thanks to substitute Felix Platte who equalised to take things to extra time. Four of the five German penalty takers converted, while keeper Julian Pollersbeck saved two England penalties after looking at his ‘Jens Lehmann cheat sheet’.
“We play, watch and love football for these kinds of moments,” said the goalkeeper. The question was then could Germany beat Spain in the final? They did, and the match-winner on 30th June 2017 was Mitchell Weiser. The right-back, who then played for Hertha BSC, scored an unusual header to win the game in the 40th minute. At 22:34 CEST, Stefan Kuntz put his arms round the fourth official’s neck and then fell to the ground. “We deserved to win. It’s an indescribable feeling,” said Kuntz after his side became the second U21s team to become European Champions. Don’t all good things come in threes?###more###