With this summer’s European Under-21 Championships just around the corner, youngsters from across the continent will be aware that the tournament could kick-start their careers.
Major clubs around the world have a significant presence at the tournament, with a large numbers 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 to 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 performance during the 1994 European Championships. The forward was instrumental in Portugal’s run to the final in the tournament though he was powerless to stop his country 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’s favourite until his big money move to arch-rivals Real Madrid. After 127 appearances for his country, Figo retired in 2009 when he was with Inter Milan.
Fabio Cannavaro – 1996
Following their success in 1994, Italy retained the European Championships 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 Championships on the bounce and cemented his position as one of Europe’s leading talents with his performances.
The defender 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 Italian club, including a Uefa Cup and was made captain.
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However, Cannavaro – like many of that fine Parma side – moved on to pastures new with a move to 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 currently making a pretty penny as manager of China’s national side.
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.
The 40-year-old was already with the Catalan club during the tournament and played for three further years at the Camp Nou. However, he was rarely 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.
Andrea Pirlo – 2000
Pirlo was already with Inter Milan by the time he was mastering the Championships 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 36-year-old spent ten 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 the MLS with New York City FC. He retired in 2017 but remains as cool as ever.
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 33-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, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea won the race to sign Cech and fended off interest from Real Madrid and Manchester United to sign the ‘keeper.
Cech won four Premier League titles, plus the Champions League and Europa League, during his time at Stamford Bridge before heading across the capital to Arsenal.
He’s past his prime now and has lost his place to Bernd Leno, prompting rumours that he will leave the Gunners when his contract expires this summer.
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 36, spent time with Genoa, Bologna, Guangzhou Evergrande, Palermo, Empoli, Pescara and Spezia before calling it a day in 2018.
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 onto AC Milan.
He spent seven years in the Bundesliga with Schalke 04 but is now back in familiar surroundings at Ajax and will be doing all he can to secure progression to the Champions League semi-finals.
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 that he is now 32, 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. He’s been turning out for Abu Dhabi-based Al Ain FC since 2017.
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 has proven to be a solid servant at Old Trafford but could be on the move this summer as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer eyes a squad revamp.
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 Championships 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 31 appearances for Spain and remains a key presence in the Bavarians’ midfield.
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 last season and eventually signed for La Liga outfit Real Betis in the summer of 2018.
Dani Ceballos – 2017
Despite the fact in-demand Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez finished the latest 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.
However, the Champions League title in his trophy cabinet is not to be sniffed at. The midfielder is still just 22, so time is very much on his side.