Ansgar Knauf is 20 years old. As a young professional soccer player, he learns something new every day. For example, it’s been two and a half weeks since he learned how to win important and limited matches in the Europa League final – and then how to celebrate after that. With Eintracht Frankfurt defeating the Glasgow Rangers, then his experienced colleagues showed him how to beat the drums professionally.
The national players in Germany’s under-21 selection pass on relevant experiences from the club to their young teammates. As one of the Europa League winners, Knauff is an important contact for German football talents these days. How was it two and a half weeks ago in Seville? How do you celebrate properly? Knauf knows that now. When the Under-21 team qualified for the European Under-21 Championship with a 4-0 victory over Hungary on Friday night in Osnabrück, Knauf took the lead and transferred his experience from Frankfurt. “The coach said, ‘If you do well, you can also celebrate. So I think we’ll do that now,'” he said with cool composure at first. And then they celebrated. This is also part of football. “Let them celebrate, today I will turn a blind eye,” said Antonio de Salvo, coach of the national under-21 team.
De Salvo, 42, may be the most relaxed of all. He took over as coach of the national under-21 team, succeeding Stefan Kontz eight months ago. Kontz, now the first Turkish coach, was very successful in this position, leading the oldest German junior team to the European Championship final three times and to the title twice. Promoted from assistant to head coach after Kuntzen’s departure, Di Salvo must now prove he can do it like Kuntz.
The beginning was full of bumps. In the first qualifiers under De Salvo in his hometown of Paderborn of all places, the German national team was trailing 2-1 against Israel until the 88th minute. Then Kevin Shade (Freiburg) and Jonathan Burkhardt (Mainz) turned the game with two goals in the space of three minutes. Di Salvo was relieved, the Under-21s won the next game 5-1 in Hungary, but just a month later they suffered a mid-November defeat in Grossbach in a 4-0 defeat to Poland. Qualification for the European Championship was in jeopardy, and that would have been the worst thing for the U21s: missing out on the European Championship for the first time since 2011 (at the time under coach Rainer Adron).
But de Salvo put his pupils back on the right track. This was followed by four wins without conceding a goal: 4-0 against San Marino, 4-0 against Latvia, 1-0 in Israel and on Friday night in Osnabrück 4-0 against Hungary with goals by Yosef Mukoko (Dortmund), Jonathan Burckhardt (Mainz) and Tom Krause (Leipzig) and Lazar Samardzic (Udine). “I am very happy with the team’s performance, our big goal was to qualify for the European Championship,” said Di Salvo. In this regard, the new national under-21 coach initially achieved everything necessary. The next and most important test will not be held for a year, in June 2023 at the European Championships in Romania and Georgia.
Di Salvo now has twelve months to present and form his EM team. It does not have a significant impact on the performance of potential players, because it depends on the amount of creative freedom given to these players in their clubs. In this regard, the coach of the national under-21 team hopes above all that as many players as possible will get as much playing time as possible. Knauff, Burkardt, Armel Bella Kotchap (Bochum), Luca Netz (Mönchengladbach) and Jamie Leweling (Fürth, Union Berlin soon) are good examples. I played a lot last season. Confirming that next season will be a challenge.
The summer started poorly for Leweling on Friday night, as he injured his ankle in the 9th minute. At worst, his outer ligament is torn. In fact, the season is already over, but since the World Cup doesn’t start until November in Qatar this year, the last qualifiers for the European Under-21 Championship have been brought forward from the fall to now. The German national team plays its last match against Poland in ód on Tuesday. It’s no longer about anything there. Accordingly, they will go to work with caution.