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Germany's U21 Euros title defense in danger

June 25, 2023

Just days after two of Germany's U21s suffered racial abuse, the defending champions are now a step away from being eliminated from the contest. But hopes are rising for one young player.

Noah Atubolu is Germany's next great hope as goalkeeper
Noah Atubolu is Germany's next great hope as keeper but he doesn't look like he'll be competing for the title with the U21sImage: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa/picture alliance

Germany are facing their first group-stage exit from the U21 Euros in a decade after losing 2-1 to the Czech Republic, just days after Youssoufa Moukoko and Jessic Ngankam suffered racial abuse on social media.

The defending champions now need to beat England and hope that Israel beat the Czech Republic. Only then can Germany make the quarterfinals and keep their chances of qualifying for 2024 Olympics alive.

The 2023 U21 Euros has been a very unsettling campaign for the Germany side, both on and off the field. After the abuse suffered by Moukoko and Ngankam, German Football association (DFB) vice president Ronny Zimmermann told "Kicker" that the DFB would be taking action if similar situations occur in the future. This would include going against the authors of online messages under criminal law, as well as demanding websites to delete the abusive posts.

"In the end, politicians must also act," Zimmermann said. "If they want to protect the people in Germany, and I'm not just talking about footballers, then they have to start at some point. After all, we've been talking about hate and incitement on the net for years, but nobody does anything about it."

Germany's keeper Noah Atubolu also spoke out, saying: "I just hope it stops. I don't understand why people are still racist today. The lads can't do anything about where they come from. They decide for themselves to play for Germany and give their all for their country."

The 21-year-old from Freiburg with Nigerian roots admitted he too has experienced racism during his young career.

"Now and again, when you arrive at a stadium, there are sometimes chants or remarks. I think I can handle it quite well, but this kind of stuff should just stop. It's not just happening here either, but in other leagues too."

Can Atubolu replace Neuer?

Germany's performance at the tournament will prompt conversation about youth development in German football.

With Manuel Neuer (37) nearing the end of his career and Marc-Andre ter Stegen (31) and Kevin Trapp (turns 33 this summer) not getting any younger, expectation is already building around goalkeeper Atubolu.

In recent years, an obvious successor to Neuer has not been forthcoming. Alex Nübel impressed at Schalke but suffered from making a move to Bayern Munich. Julian Pollersbeck quickly faded after being Germany's U21 hero in 2017 and Bernd Leno, like many potential candidates, didn't play enough for Germany during their prime because Neuer was still the clear number one.

Enter Atubolu. The 21-year-old is set to become Freiburg's number one next season after former first choice Mark Flekken left for Brentford in the Premier League. After plenty of experience in the third division as the keeper for Freiburg's reserves, Atubolu now faces a decisive season.

Noah Atubolu has been Freiburg's reserve keeper for a while now and is set to make the leap to first-team goalkeeper
Noah Atubolu played in last season's German Cup for Freiburg against St. Pauli and is now set to be the first choiceImage: Jan Huebner/IMAGO

A strong shot-stopper with good positional awareness, Atubolu has a real chance of making the leap. However, as has been evident in Georgia, the Freiburg man has also shown room for improvement in terms of controlling his area and judging risk.

In the first two games at the tournament, Atubolu delivered one lapse in concentration and another excellent piece of keeping. Against the Czech Republic, Atubolu first misjudged a ball going out and then parried brilliantly just moments later.

It has been 14 years since Manuel Neuer won the U21 Euros. It doesn't look likely that Atubolu will be following in his footsteps with the same trophy, but hope remains that he can become Germany's next number one. Now all that's left to do is to find out.

Edited by Darko Janjevic