Tomorrow’s stars shine on European stage
© AFP

France's youngsters battled back from a goal down to secure a 2-1 success over Spain in the final of the UEFA Under-19 Championship, hosted on home soil in Caen. France and Spain will be justifiably proud of this particular crop of players, the two nations having also disputed the final of the continental U-17 event two years ago, with the Spanish emerging victorious 4-0 on that occasion.

“At youth level we’re told that winning is not the be all and end all, what really matters is becoming good footballers. The idea is that in the future we become capable of competing at the highest level whilst playing good football too,” said Spanish captain Keko on the eve of the final. And on the evidence of La Roja’s run of four straight victories on the road to the title decider, wins which featured skill, touch and speed in abundance, Keko and Co should not be disheartened by defeat to Les Petits Bleus.

We proved stronger than them and more incisive in the individual tussles.
France's Timothee Koloddziejczak

Indeed, the latter were under the cosh for much of the first half of the final, and it was no surprise when the visitors took the lead via Rodrigo’s 18th-minute strike. The Spaniards struggled to keep up the tempo after the interval though, and France showed strength of character to turn the scoreline on its head through goals from Gilles Sunu and Alexandre Lacazette on 49 and 85 minutes respectively. “At the break we looked at each other and remembered that it was the same (half-time) score as (at the U-17 tournament) two years before,” said France left-back Timothee Kolodziejczak.

“But we told ourselves that we mustn’t run out of steam physically and we proved stronger than them and more incisive in the individual tussles,” added the Lyon starlet after the match at the Stade Michel-d'Ornano, involving 11 of the 22 starters who had appeared in the U-17 final in 2008. Also joining Spain and France in representing Europe at the 2011 edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia will be England, Croatia, Austria and Portugal.

Players to watch
Aside from setting out which European teams appear at next year’s global showpiece, the continental competition threw up a host of young players with all the ingredients to become stars of the not-too-distant future.

La Selección boast striking sensation Sergio Canales, who burst onto the domestic scene at Racing Santander and was quickly snapped up by Real Madrid. Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain, for his part, was La Liga’s youngest ever scorer in October 2009, while great things are expected of Barcelona midfielder Thiago Alcantara, whose father is Brazilian former FIFA World Cup™-winner Mazinho, and who has already made his first-team debut under coach Josep Guardiola.

France, meanwhile, were able to call on Chelsea midfielder Gael Kakuta, the versatile Alexandre Lacazette and livewire forward Antoine Griezmann, all of whom will be hoping to catch the eye of Les Bleus’ new senior supremo Laurent Blanc. Crossing the Channel, English captain Matthew James of Manchester United put in a series of outstanding midfield displays on his side’s run to the last four, where they lost to Spain. Nor must we neglect to mention the eye for goal and creativity of Croatian midfielder Filip Ozobic, whose side also reached the semi-finals only to lose to eventual winners France.

Portugal and Austria finished third in their respective groups and thus pipped Italy and the Netherlands to FIFA U-20 World Cup berths. Standing out above the crowd for the Portuguese was Benfica’s deep-lying midfielder Danilo, who showed remarkable composure for a player his age in what is a very demanding role.

A tip of the hat must also go to Spain’s Ezequiel Calvente, whose spectacular penalty kick after coming on as a substitute against Italy is already the stuff of Internet legend. The Real Betis player, who claims to have copied a move performed by Thierry Henry on a TV show, ran up to the spot shaping to shoot with his right foot only to send the ball arrowing into the top corner with the merest touch of his standing left leg. And though no doubt a risky manoeuvre, Calvente’s audacious strike is a perfect illustration of the exquisite skills that could be in store come Colombia 2011.