The Netherlands will head Europe's Olympic contingent after becoming the first host nation to win the UEFA European U-21 Championship, retaining the trophy they lifted for the first time in Portugal last summer.
Serbia, despite sweeping aside the likes of Italy, Belgium and
the Czech Republic en route to the final, proved no match for Foppe
de Haan's dominant
Jong Oranje, who capped a memorable campaign with a
thoroughly deserved 4-1 win in rain-soaked Groningen. The
hosts' goals came from Otman Bakkal, Ryan Babel, Luigi Bruins
and tournament top scorer Maceo Rigters and, for De Haan, the
achievement eclipsed that of beating Ukraine by an identical margin
in the previous edition's final.
"When you win this twice, year after year, that's remarkable," said the veteran coach. "I'm proud of the guys, they did a good job, worked hard and were a team. We were a new team, a young team, and that made it hard but I'm very happy. Our achievement is bigger than last year because I think we had more quality then."
The 63-year-old certainly earned lavish praise in his homeland for coping without the talents of talismanic striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and team captain Stijn Schaars, the latter of whom paid tribute to the former Heerenveen coach for harnessing the notoriously individualistic Dutch within a strong team framework. "He knows what a team has to do to go far in a tournament," said Schaars. "It's not just about the qualities of the players, but also about team-building and he does a good job with that. He's a really great coach."
Capping a day of celebration for the Dutch, De Haan made it clear that he has every intention of leading their bid for three-in-a-row when Sweden stages the next edition two years from now, a tournament at which he believes the Jong Oranje will once again be the team to beat. "Winning this tournament twice in a row is not a coincidence, it's the consequence of a good plan," said De Haan. "The senior team is also very young, so the future is quite bright."
'A big step for Serbia'
The same can undoubtedly be said for Serbia, whose U-19 team will next month aim to go one better than their U-21 counterparts when they compete in another eight-nation European finals in Austria.
Coach Miroslav Djukic was honest enough to admit that his side
ultimately met their match in the final, but he was equally
justified in claiming that his players could retreat with heads
held high - and full of confidence of making an impact at Beijing
2008. "They've done brilliantly in these finals," he
enthused, while bemoaning the nervy start to the match and the
62nd-minute dismissal of left-back Aleksandar Kolarov that left his
side with an insurmountable mountain to climb.
Nevertheless, midfielder Bosko Jankovic - one of several Serb success stories - believes that this generation of players have once again proved their credentials at the highest level beyond doubt. "The Netherlands played fantastic, really very well," said Jankovi. "But all the Serbian players played with great heart. It has been a big step for Serbia in the last three years. Last year we reached the semi-finals, in 2004 we were in the final and now we played in the final again."
There was also plenty of encouragement for Belgium, the team at
whose expense Serbia advanced to the final. Jean-François De
Sart's side emerged unbeaten from a group that included Israel,
the Dutch and a much-fancied Portugal side that boasted the likes
of Nani and Manuel Fernandes, and were rewarded with a place in
next year's Men's Olympic Tournament.
Penalty curse stalks England
That fourth and final side to claim that prize were Italy, although they had to do so almost by default after finishing behind Serbia and England in a formidable section that also included a strong Czech side. Pierluigi Casiraghi's side had arrived in the Netherlands widely tipped to add to their record tally of five continental titles at this level, but in the end it was only England's ineligibility for the Olympics that granted the Azzurrini a reprieve.
They did, however, deserve credit for surviving the dismissal of Manchester United striker Giuseppe Rossi in their fifth-place play-off against Portugal to claim a tense 4-3 victory on penalties, this in a game that goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano said "could and should have been the final". Yet despite the universal acknowledgement that Italy had underachieved, Rossi himself was able to look on the bright side. "The Olympics is a great tournament," he reflected. "It's a once in a lifetime chance for us."
For England, the fact that they are to be denied this same opportunity merely rubbed salt into wounds created by a painfully predictable penalty shoot-out defeat to the Dutch in the last four. Coach Stuart Pearce, one of the penalty villains in England's 1990 FIFA World Cup™ semi-final defeat to West Germany, might have compelled his squad to practice from the spot every day in training, but all that preparation proved to no avail as the hosts edged a dramatic and epic shoot-out 13-12.
It remained to Pearce's credit that, even after such heartbreak, he was able to take a philosophical view of a match in which England had led until the final minute of normal time. "It's probably the proudest moment of my career," he said afterwards. "The shoot-outs I was involved in only went to five or six penalties, so at least we're going in the right direction. We've got the nucleus of nine or ten players who can represent the U21s going into the next tournament in two years. It bodes well."