Italians puzzled by the conundrum of youth

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The Independent Online

Proof, if any were needed, that the Italians possess the best Under-21 set-up in Europe is provided by the fact they have reached the European Championship final for the third time in the last fourcompetitions.

Proof, if any were needed, that the Italians possess the best Under-21 set-up in Europe is provided by the fact they have reached the European Championship final for the third time in the last fourcompetitions.

England, who were knocked out of the tournament on Thursday, are now trying to find the answer to the familiar question - "Where did it go wrong?" - when there is supposedly so much young talent about. Their situation is not nearly so mysterious as the Italians. While the Azzurri have won each of those finals they have yet to see those players graduate into a squad to win the World Cup or a senior European Championship.

Since 1992, two World Cups and Euro 96 have come and gone and, although the Italians did reach the 1994 World Cup final, for the rest they have been disappointing, begging the question what happens to all those players once they grow too old for the Under-21s?

There is no guarantee that if you can play for the Under-21s then you will cut it in the full side. Rio Ferdinand and Kieron Dyer are still young enough to play at the junior level but instead were contenders for Kevin Keegan's final squad for Euro 2000. They missed out on both.

Equally, if you are good enough then you are old enough. Just ask Emile Heskey, Gareth Barry and Richard Wright, not forgetting Michael Owen, who seems to have been around as long as Keegan himself. All are still eligible for the Under-21 side but instead will be aiming for high achievements in the Low Countries.

Of the more recent Under-21 graduates, vital players such as Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta will all feature heavily in Euro 2000. Of tonight's team, the undoubted stars are the Milan pair, the goalkeeper Christian Abbiati and the midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, as well as the former Internazionale duo in attack of Nicola Ventola and Andrea Pirlo. Despite their undoubted promise, since facing Manchester United in the Champions' League last year, the last two have been squeezed away to other Serie A clubs by the presence of players such as Ronaldo, Christian Vieri and Ivan Zamorano.

Italy are so keen to produce the next generation of Roberto Baggios, that they sent a second Under-21 squad to the Toulon tournament in France, something England did not.

Italy's opponents tonight are the less-fancied Czech Republic, who surprised many people in Slovakia by qualifying ahead of the holders, Spain. The Spaniards will have to be content with a third-place play-off against the hosts. All four have qualified for the Sydney Olympic tournament.

Don't bet against an Italyvictory in the Slovan stadium tonight, but on their track record what odds that any of this Serie A-based team will be pushing their country on to the ultimate triumph in the World Cup in two years' time?

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