The UEFA European Under 21 Championships hold a prestigious place on the international soccer calendar. A showcase tournament for the stars of tomorrow, players such as Manuel Neuer, Andrea Pirlo, Luis Figo, and Fabio Cannavaro have all played in the biennial tournament. The competition has been held in its current form since 1978 and is used as a qualifying platform for the Summer Olympics. It includes eight teams, seven of whom had to qualify successfully for the tournament, and the hosts. As the 2015 edition gets underway in the Czech Republic, three Montreal Impact players have suited up for their respective countries and competed in the tournament during its history.
Midfielder Marco Donadel was the most successive of the lot, participating in the tournament twice and winning it in 2004 with Italy. In the winning campaign, Donadel started all but one game. In the final, his corner kick found the head of Daniele De Rossi to give the Azzurrini a one goal advantage in the 32' minute. It was a lead they would never relinquish as they went on to defeat Serbia and Montenegro 3-0. Donadel finished the tournament with no goals and two yellow cards. The win gave the Italians their fifth title in the Under 21 competition. Today, they are still the most successful side in tournament history.
In 2006, Donadel and Italy found themselves under the pressure of being the holders. With the tournament being held in Portugal, the Italians clawed their way back from two down to tie Denmark in the opener. Donadel was booked in the 40' minute. In the second group match, Donadel was awarded the captains armband before the game and his side won 1-0 over the Ukraine. Giorgio Chiellini found the back of the net deep into stoppage time.
Despite leading his team to a victory, Donadel picked up another yellow card in the 83' minute. He was suspended for the last group stage match on card accumulation. Italy would lose their remaining match 1-0 to the Dutch and although tying the Jong Oranje in points and goal differential, they were eliminated on the basis of head-to-head results. The Netherlands would go on to hoist the trophy.
Montreal Impact midfielder and defender Nigel Reo-Coker also represented his home country of England in the European Under 21 Championships. Captaining the Three Lions in the 2007 edition when the tournament was switched to odd number years, he felt the devastating effects of being on the losing round of a penalty shootout. A sixteen round penalty shootout to be exact. Playing alongside the likes of Leighton Baines, Gary Cahill, and Ashley Young, Reo-Coker led his side to a win and two draws in the group stage. They were paired with host and defending champions the Netherlands in the semi-final.
After a 1-1 stalemate through 120 minutes, there were exactly thirty-two penalty shots taken before the Dutch broke the deadlock and advanced to the final. Reo-Coker stepped up in the ninth round and saw his attempt saved. Luckily for the now-Impact player, his opposition missed the chance to seal the game for the hosts on the next kick. However, after several more rounds the Young Lions finally bowed out and the Dutch would go on to retain the title.
In the same 2007 tournament, Montreal Impact defender Laurent Ciman was used sparingly in Belgium's campaign. Going unused in the first two matches, Ciman saw his name on the starting lineup for the third group game versus the eventual champions, the Dutch. The result was a 2-2 draw. Belgium advanced through to the semi-finals, but fell to Serbia. Ciman did not play.
The 2015 UEFA European Under 21 Championship is the twentieth staging of the event. It is being played from June 17-June 30. With an amazing amount of young talent on display, it will certainly be worth tuning into TSN and RDS to catch the games. And who knows, we may see some future Impact players in the making.