Youth offers Germany some light amid the gloom as inquests begin

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The Independent Football

There was a symbolic moment right at the end of Germany's Group D match against the Czech Republic's reserves on Wednesday night, when the ageing defender Jens Nowotny tried to send a pass down the right touchline. Drifting harmlessly out of play, it illustrated much of the team's ineffectiveness over three games, and turned out to be the last kick of their Euro 2004 campaign. Meanwhile, Rudi Völler was taking his last kick as coach, at a yellow water-bottle in his technical area. The way it flew into the distance suggested he might have been better employed resurrecting his career as the country's main striker.

Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland; adios, España; arrivederci, Italia; even before France and England departed at the quarter-final stage, three of the European superpowers had gone home without making even the last eight of the competition, and there have been few tears shed for them. The Spanish deserve a little sympathy, perhaps, for the memory of some exciting wing-play by Vicente and Josebar Etxebarria in their opening two games. But when it came to the crunch against Portugal, long-standing local rivals whose inferiority complex had been partly ameliorated by being given the tournament to host, Spain were unambitious until it was too late. Raul failed to repay the faith of the coach, Inaki Saez, Etxebarria was badly missed and the perennial underachievers were out again - as was Saez, a successful youth coach who never quite convinced the nation of his suitability for the top job.

Giovanni Trapattoni was relieved of his job last Friday, after four years in charge of Italy, during which the team have disappointed in two successive tournaments. After the 2002 World Cup elimination, he was helped by blinkered patriots and conspiracy theorists blaming referees and linesmen; this time they are full of a supposed Nordic plot between Sweden and Denmark, two considerably more attractive teams whose 2-2 draw was a blood-and-thunder affair in which the Danes were clearly seeking a third goal when holding a 2-1 lead.

Successful club coach as he may be, the 65-year-old Trapattoni did his country no favours by reverting to the essentially negative approach that undermines Italian football. Unlucky in having to rule out from the squad Pippo Inzaghi, whose hat-trick had devastated Wales, he found a bright young replacement in Roma's Antonio Cassano. But the images that will remain in the mind are of Francesco Totti spitting at Denmark's Christian Poulsen; Marco Materazzi with his arms wrapped round a Bulgarian opponent to concede a penalty (which could have been given at most corners Italy defended); and, more poignantly, Cassano celebrating his late winning goal in that game before realising from the subdued reaction in the dug-out that it was in vain.

The nation retains an affection for Trapattoni, which is one reason why he stood down, to be replaced by Marcello Lippi. Völler went, tempted as he must have been to hang on for two years with qualification for the next World Cup assured as host country and with a crop of youngsters coming through to replace the excessive number of over-30s in the current squad. "In the second half [against the Czechs] we had four players on the pitch aged under 21," he said. "That's the future of German football. While the future looks bright, we cannot match the great nations just yet. But this wasn't the débâcle of four years ago."

It may not have been, but from the start Germany seemed to have been banking on reputation alone getting them through, much as it did when given a favourable draw two years ago to pave the way for a flattering finish as runners-up to Brazil. This time Saudi Arabia, the USA and South Korea were not available as opponents and Michael Ballack finished up playing the Czechs virtually on his own.

Völler's replacement - presumably Ottmar Hitzfeld - needs youngsters like Bayern Munich's Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lucas Podolski of Cologne and Stuttgart's Kevin Kuranyi and Phillip Lahm to make big strides over the next 18 months if Germany are to be credible challengers in their own land two summers from now. Italy and Spain must look to the future too, once each of the three countries has finished the current painful inquests.