Germany youngsters seek to defend U19 title after U21 heartbreak
For German football fans, the tournament deluge continues unabated. On Sunday, the European U19 Championship starts in Greece and Germany will be looking to retain the title the team won last summer.
They will be also looking to inject the feelgood factor back into German football following the U21's disastrous 5-0 semifinal defeat against Portugal in the European U21 Championship on June 27.
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This U19 competition is not as widely covered as the Euro U21 equivalent but there was a time when it was the premier continental football tournament below senior level.
The U19 Euros have been held since 1948 and was known during its heyday as the International Youth Tournament and later as the UEFA Youth Tournament. The International Youth Tournament was essentially a European Championship for U18 teams and was always a big event, usually comprised of 16 sides and staged in one country.
Many great footballers emerged as future stars at the International Youth Tournament including Italy's Luigi Riva in 1963, Netherlands' Johan Cruyff in 1965 and France's Alain Giresse in 1970. The England team that won the 1975 competition included Bryan Robson and Glenn Hoddle. England won the final against Finland with a golden goal scored by Ray Wilkins.
The tournament enjoys a special place in German football lore. Uwe Seeler scored 13 goals in 1954 while Franz Beckenbauer stunned crowds with his elegance in 1964. Five years later, the tournament was held in East Germany and players like Uli Hoeness and Paul Breitner first caught a glimpse of life on the other side of the Berlin Wall.
It seems unlikely that Germany's U19s will contemplate the tournament's rich heritage as they prepare for the 2015 edition. But events last year proved that it's still a very prestigious competition.
Germany, coached by Marcus Sorg, won the final against Portugal when Hany Mukhtar (Hertha Berlin) converted a cross from Marc Stendera (Eintracht Frankfurt). Sorg immediately became what the press called "a prime candidate" to succeed Hans-Dieter Flick as Joachim Low's assistant in the senior set-up.
This was an astonishing reversal of fortunes. Just three years earlier, Sorg had suffered what the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel called "a career setback".
His club, Freiburg, had promoted him from coach of the reserves to running the Bundesliga team. After just six months at the helm and with the team mired in last place, Freiburg sacked him.
Maybe Freiburg had high hopes for Sorg, now 49, because he seemed to perfectly fit the mould of the new type of successful German coach. Like Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Markus Weinzierl, Christian Streich or Löw himself, Sorg was still fairly young, came from southern Germany and had never had a career as a Bundesliga player.
However, he differed from Klopp, Tuchel or Streich in that he wasn't an emotional firebrand on the sidelines. "I come from (the federal state of) Baden-Württemberg, where people are generally a bit more reserved," he said.
Coaches who go about their business in such a quiet, unobtrusive manner don't seem to be much in demand these days, so Sorg joined Bayern Munich as their U17 coach for one season before his old friend Robin Dutt, at the time the German FA's sporting director, offered him the post of national U19 coach in 2013.
He seems to have found his calling. Between 2002 -- when the erstwhile UEFA Youth Tournament was restructured to become the European U19 Championship -- and 2013, Germany have won the title only once. In fact before Sorg took over, the German team failed to qualify for the finals five years in a row.
Sorg steered the side through the tricky qualifiers -- beating Spain 3-1 in Vigo, Galicia -- and then he guided them to the title.
"He's a great coach," striker Davie Selke enthused. "The way he lives football is unique."
Maybe it's a good thing the job of being Löw's assistant eventually went to Thomas Schneider rather than Sorg. As the saying goes, the hard part is not getting to the top but staying there. And in March, Sorg managed to get the team to the 2015 European Championship, the first time since 2008 that Germany have made the finals two years running.
It was close, though. The crucial game was a thriller against the Republic of Ireland which Germany had to win.
"Before the game I told the team that I loved these kinds of days -- it's all or nothing," Sorg later said.
"I told them such days will help a team and every single player improve and develop. But of course I didn't dream of anything like this."
Eight minutes from time the Irish held a 2-1 lead, mainly because Sorg's team wasted a plethora of chances. Then Jonas Föhrenbach crossed from the left and Lucas Cueto knocked the ball in at the near post to tie the game.
Two minutes into stoppage time, Cueto went up for a header at the edge of Ireland six-yard box. However, he couldn't make proper contact with the ball and only glanced it towards the left-hand post. But suddenly, as if appearing from nowhere, Föhrenbach was there to push the ball across the line from a tight angle for a last-gasp winner.
Both Föhrenbach and Cueto will travel to Greece for the finals. There are a few players in the squad some readers might be familiar with, such as Timo Werner and Timo Baumgartl (both VfB Stuttgart) or Leroy Sané (Schalke).
A key player, though, is missing. Bayern Munich's Gianluca Gaudino is absent for private reasons.
He will be sorely missed because Sorg's team face stiff opposition indeed -- Spain, Netherlands and Russia. But as he said, such games help players improve and develop.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.