Football Features

Where are they now? The winners of the Euro U21s Golden Player award

By Squawka News

Published: 9:30, 21 June 2023

Every two years the European Under-21 Championship takes place, with youngsters from across the continent using the tournament to kick-start their careers.

Major clubs around the world have always had a significant presence at the tournament, with a large number of scouts sent to eye the next generation of talent.

In years gone by, stars such as Luis Figo and Juan Mata have announced themselves on the big stage by receiving the ‘Golden Player’ award for their performances in the tournament.

However, despite plenty of success stories, there have been several cases of failed potential. With that in mind, we take a look at what the previous winners of the prize are up to now.

Luis Figo – 1994

A man who needs no introduction. The legendary Portuguese midfielder catapulted himself into stardom following his Player of the Tournament-winning performance during the 1994 European U21 Championships. The forward was instrumental in Portugal’s run to the final in the tournament though he was powerless to stop his country from losing to Italy in the final.

Figo spent one further year at Sporting Lisbon following the tournament but was snapped up by Barcelona in 1995. The midfielder spent five successful years at the Camp Nou and was a fan favourite until his big-money move to arch-rivals Real Madrid. After 127 appearances for his country, Figo retired in 2009, ending his career at Inter Milan.

Fabio Cannavaro – 1996

Following their success in 1994, Italy retained the European U21 Championship in 1996 thanks, in part, to the rock in the centre of their defence; Fabio Cannavaro.

The legendary defender was the player of the tournament as Italy won their second Championship on the bounce and cemented his position as one of Europe’s leading talents with his performances.

Cannavaro was already well-known for his performances at Napoli but earned a move to Parma following the tournament. The centre-back won four trophies during his time at the Crociati, including a Uefa Cup and was made captain.

However, like many of that fine Parma side, Cannavaro moved on to pastures new at Inter Milan in 1999. He spent two years at the club before a move to Juventus. The move to the Old Lady coincided with the pinnacle of Cannavaro’s career when he guided the Azzurri to the World Cup in 2006.

The centre-back won the Ballon d’Or for his performances in the tournament and earned a move to Real Madrid, before retiring in 2011. He’s since moved into coaching having managed Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande, the Chinese national team and Benevento.

Francesc Arnau – 1998

Despite spending six years at Spanish giants Barcelona, a name on the list that may surprise some is Arnau. The goalkeeper was crucial in Spain’s 1998 victory in the Championships as they beat Greece 1-0 in the final.

Arnau, now 45, was already with the Catalan club during the tournament and played for three further years at the Nou Camp. However, he was rarely the first choice and made just 24 appearances for Barcelona before moving to Malaga in 2001.

The stopper made 131 appearances for Malaga before retiring in 2011, having never earned a full international cap for Spain. He remained with Malaga as a youth coach before becoming director of football in 2015. Arnau would then serve as the sporting director at Real Oviedo.

Andrea Pirlo – 2000

Pirlo was already with Inter Milan by the time he was mastering the U21 Euros in 2000.

However, the Italian playmaker made just 22 appearances in three years for the Serie A giants and didn’t fully fulfil his potential until he made a move to arch-rivals AC Milan in 2001.

The 41-year-old spent 10 trophy-laden years with Milan and won the Champions League twice during his time with the club.

Having made 115 appearances for Italy since his full international cap in 2002, the height of Pirlo’s career came when he won the World Cup in 2006.

Pirlo also enjoyed significant success during his twilight years with Juventus before spending a swansong in MLS with New York City FC. He retired in 2017 before returning to Juventus as manager, replacing Maurizio Sarri, but that reign lasted one season.

Petr Cech – 2002

Another success of the Championships is Petr Cech. The goalkeeper won the Player of the Tournament award as the Czech Republic sealed their first-ever Under-21 tournament victory.

The 38-year-old was with French side Rennes at the time of the award and spent a further two years in Ligue 1 despite interest from across Europe.

In 2004, Chelsea won the race to sign Cech, fending off interest from Real Madrid and Manchester United to secure the goalkeeper.

Cech won four Premier League titles, the Champions League and the Europa League during his time at Stamford Bridge among other trophies before heading across the capital to Arsenal.

After losing 4-1 to Chelsea in the Europa League final in 2018, Cech called time on his playing career and returned to Stamford Bridge as a technical and performance advisor.

Alberto Gilardino – 2004 

Perhaps one of the previous winners that falls into the ‘failed potential’ category.

Gilardino spent time with the likes of AC Milan and Parma throughout his career but failed to materialise into the player that many felt he could become in Italy.

The striker spearheaded Italy’s victory in 2004 and was halfway through his spell at Parma during the time – arguably the most successful period of his career.

A year later, Gilardino completed a move to giants AC Milan and scored 36 goals in 90 appearances for Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

The striker, now 38, spent time with Genoa, Bologna, Guangzhou Evergrande, Palermo, Empoli, Pescara and Spezia before calling it a day in 2018. Gilardino is now the manager of Genoa.

Klaas Jan-Huntelaar – 2006

After Holland’s 2006 victory, Huntelaar was earmarked as a player with huge potential following his goalscoring exploits.

The Dutch striker had moved to Ajax just months before the tournament and soon became a target for the biggest clubs in Europe after guiding the Netherlands to the prize.

Huntelaar sealed a big-money move to Real Madrid in 2009 but spent a miserable year at the Bernabeu before moving on to AC Milan.

He spent seven years in the Bundesliga with Schalke 04 before returning to familiar surroundings at Ajax, helping them to a domestic double and a Champions League semi-final in 2018/19. He’s since hung up his boots and now works for the Amsterdammers as their technical manager, who reports to sporting director Sven Mislintat.

Royston Drenthe – 2007

After retaining the championships in 2007, many European clubs were targeting the cream of Holland’s Under-21 side.

The stand-out performer of the 2007 side, alongside Ryan Babel, was Royston Drenthe. The winger caught the eye with his blistering pace and eye for goal and earned a summer move to Real Madrid from Feyenoord following the tournament.

The move proved to be too soon for Drenthe and, despite making 46 appearances in his two seasons at the Bernabeu, he was shipped off on loan to Hercules and Everton before being sold to Alania Vladikavkaz in Russia.

Spells with Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Kayseri Erciyesspor, Baniyas and Sparta Rotterdam prove that he’s struggled to settle anywhere.

Given the 36-year-old last played for Racing Mérida City, it’s fair to say Drenthe has failed to fulfil his potential having made just one full appearance for Holland.

Marcus Berg – 2009

After scoring seven goals in just four matches for Sweden in the 2009 European Championships, Berg was awarded Player of the Tournament.

The striker was with Dutch side Groningen at the time but earned a summer transfer to Hamburg on the back of his displays. The forward spent four years with the Bundesliga club but scored just 13 goals in 70 appearances during his time in Germany.

In 2013, Berg sealed a move to Panathinaikos and spent four years with the Greek outfit. After a stint with Abu Dhabi-based Al Ain FC, Krasnodar he’s now playing for boyhood club  IFK Göteborg.

Juan Mata – 2011

Playing in a Spanish side with the likes of Thiago and Ander Herrera, it was Mata that was Spain’s shining light as they won the 2011 tournament.

The attacking midfielder scored twice during the tournament and within weeks of the tournament he was sealing a move to Chelsea from Valencia.

After winning Player of the Year in consecutive years at Stamford Bridge – in which the Blues won the Champions League – Mata was deemed surplus to requirements under Jose Mourinho and was sold to Manchester United.

The midfielder proved to be a solid servant at Old Trafford, but is now with Galatasaray, where he won his first-ever league title.

Thiago Alcantara – 2013

Tipped for stardom with club and country, former Barcelona man Thiago was attracting interest from across Europe going into the 2013 Championships.

Then 22, Thiago had yet to earn a regular spot in the Barcelona side and, despite coming through the famed youth system at the club, was available to leave that summer.

David Moyes’ Manchester United were rumoured to be interested in the attacking midfielder that guided Spain to their second consecutive Championship but the Italy-born Thiago eventually opted to join former coach Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.

Since his international debut in 2011, Thiago has made 37 appearances for Spain and remains a vital presence in the Bavarians’ midfield, winning the Treble in 2019/20 and is regarded as one of the best in his position. However, he is currently playing for Liverpool, where he’s struggled with injuries.

William Carvalho – 2015

The imposing Portugal midfielder picked up the Player of the Tournament award, despite missing a crucial penalty in his side’s final defeat to Sweden.

Carvalho has been linked with a move to a Premier League club since day dot, only for it to fail to materialise.

He was caught up in the well-documented troubles at Sporting Lisbon and eventually signed for La Liga outfit Real Betis in the summer of 2018, where he remains.

Dani Ceballos – 2017

Despite the fact in-demand Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez finished the 2017 edition of the Under-21 tournament as top scorer, Ceballos picked up the Player of the Tournament award.

His performances proved to be enough to secure a lucrative move to Real Madrid but he has struggled for regular game time at the Bernabeu.

Ceballos was sent on loan to Arsenal at the start of the 2019/20 season but, after a promising start, an injury curtailed his campaign. However, he returned to Arsenal once more for the 2020/21 season, but is now back at Real Madrid.

Fabian Ruiz – 2019

Fabian was key to Spain’s win in 2019, scoring two goals and recording one assist in four games – including a strike in the 2-1 win over Germany in the final.

Fabian has kicked on with Napoli in the 2019/20 campaign, missing just five games across all competitions as the constant in midfield with the club enduring a difficult spell under Carlo Ancelotti and later Gennaro Gattuso despite their Coppa Italia win.

Fábio Vieira – 2021

The most recent winner of the award, Fábio Vieira helped Portugal reach their second U21 European Championship final, but they were unable to outlast Germany who ran out 1-0 winners. Lukas Nmecha scored the game’s only goal subsequently winning the Golden Shoe award. Fábio Vieira contributed with one goal and one assist. His performances, though, caught the attention of Arsenal who signed him for a reported £30m the following summer. The native of Santa Maria da Feira had played 76 matches for boyhood club Porto netting 10 goals and creating a further 18 along the way. Since joining the Gunners he’s featured 33 times in all competitions (scoring two goals and registering six assists).