On the eve of the final, Portugal coach Hélio Sousa predicted that his players would need to dig deep into mental strength as an antidote to the physical expenditure of the semi-final against Serbia. He donned an extra layer of sheep's clothing by equating the German players' Bundesliga experience with greater maturity. "We have to rise above all that," he said. "But I am sure it will be a great game and a great promotion for youth football." The 90 minutes of football played on a warm summer evening at Szusza Ferenc Stadion in Budapest proved him right on all counts.
Discrepancies in rest-and-recovery necessities were underscored when the Germany squad embarked on warm-up procedures fully 15 minutes before the Portugal players appeared on the field of play. And, when Spanish referee Xavier Estrada Fernández signalled the start of play, Sousa's team struggled to bear comparisons with the white-shirted Germans, who were determined to take the final by the scruff of the neck. Barely two minutes had passed when striker Davie Selke wove into the Portuguese box, only for Marc Stendera, bursting forward from midfield, to have his shot blocked. Within minutes he had struck another drive straight at André Moreira, back between the Portugal posts despite the injury that had forced him off during extra time in the semi-final. Then Selke narrowly missed the target after a breathtaking acceleration by right-back Kevin Akpoguma to the corner flag and an excellent cut-back. It wasn't until the 20th minute that Oliver Schnitzler was pressed into action, the Germany keeper fending off a shot by Rafa after an overlapping run had taken him in behind Akpoguma.
Curiously, both coaches had made structural variations in search of a surprise factor. Marcus Sorg had switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, deploying the industrious Joshua Kimmich as a single screening midfielder and pushing his habitual partner, Levin Öztunali, forward to accompany Stendera. Sousa did the opposite, dropping Raphael Guzzo alongside skipper Tomás Podstawski to form a duo of controlling midfielders, with Marcos Lopes acting as the central companion to wingers Gelson Martins and Ivo Rodrigues in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The pace, mobility and creative dribbling skills of the wingers were the armour-piercing weapons in the Portugal attack. But the attempts to break through – by Martins especially – were blunted by efficient German covering which seemed to direct every feint and turn against a fresh pair of defensive legs. At the other end, centre-backs Domingos Duarte and João Nunes competently prevented Selke from adding to his tally of six goals, while his Portugal counterpart, five-goal André Silva, translated frustration into tackling which earned him a ticking-off by the Spanish referee. As Sorg wanted, Germany had the initiative, but they found it hard to thread needles through the compact Portugal defensive block and the nearest approach to a breach of the stalemate had been a deflected shot on the half-hour mark which Moreira had done well to deflect for a corner.
Until the 39th minute. Stendera, outstandingly mobile in support of the sustained German offensive, managed to worm his way to the byline and square the ball for right-winger Hany Mukhtar, appearing in the central zone, to get across his marker and squeeze the ball in at the near post. Germany had put a foot in the door and, as the players went in at half-time, the question was whether Portugal, obliged to take more risks, would allow them to kick it wide open after the break.
There was no immediate answer. The opening quarter-hour of the second half was purposeful business as usual for Germany, with Kimmich and Stendera pulling the strings in central middle-to-front areas; the full-backs were ready to advance along the flanks (especially Fabian Holthaus on the left), and the front three were making positional interchanges, with left-winger Julian Brandt always willing to make Arjen Robben-like runs at the Portugal defenders.
But Sousa then began to play his cards, sending on Francisco Ramos and then Romário Baldé to join Martins and Lopes in launching high-speed devil-may-care runs at the German back line. From the hour mark, the game opened up into a giddying end-to-end spectacle with such rapid turnovers of possession that the crowd might easily have believed they were spectators at a tennis match. As soon as a German player was pressurised into losing possession or hitting a hurried pass, at least four red-shirted opponents flooded like dervishes towards Schnitzler's goal. Suddenly, centre-backs Niklas Stark and Marc-Oliver Kempf were being stretched to the limit as wave after wave of Portuguese attacks demanded rapid responses. But shots were blocked and Schnitzler, although on amber alert, was not required to reach for the panic button except when, in the 68th minute, Martins broke clear on the left. His low cross provoked, for once, scenes of chaos amid the German defence and three goal-bound attempts required desperation measures. Although not often under serious threat, Germany had undeniably lost the control and domination which formed the cornerstones of Sorg's footballing philosophy, if not their tactical discipline and their impressive organisational skills.
The two tracksuited coaches both found motives to anchor themselves at the leading edge of the technical area, gesturing and issuing instructions as the game entered a phase of madness more akin to Sousa's interests than to Sorg's preferences for order and organisation.
At the same time, Portuguese exuberance and the switch to a 4-2-4 formation opened windows of opportunity for German counterattacks – though midfielders were drawn increasingly deeper to deal with multi-pronged Portuguese attacks. Within the space of a minute, fast breaks by Öztunali and Selke had culminated in solo runs and shots which, in the first case, crept narrowly wide and, in the second, was cleared for a corner.
With the clock running down, Stendera and Martins – two of the final's key performers – were withdrawn, having given their all. Within seconds, Stendera's understudy, Felix Lohkemper, forced Moreira to make a fine save and, fed by Selke after a brilliant first-touch pass from the left, Brandt raced through one-on-one to produce more heroics from the keeper and for Duarte to hook the ball off the line after Selke's shot at an unguarded net had seemed to signify 'game over'. Moreira then strode upfield when Portugal were awarded an added-time free-kick – and managed to retreat quickly enough to help prevent Brandt from capitalising on the clearance.
When the referee signalled the end of a memorable final, Portugal could hold heads high for courage and perseverance. But Germany, having showcased their impressive 'heavyweight' power game during the opening hour, had then shown their mettle as Portugal threw everything at them. As the German players found energy to dance on the Budapest turf and Selke endured a friendly battering from his team-mates as he prepared to receive the top scorer trophy, Sousa's extenuated players gracefully accepted defeat at the hands of a team which, as Sousa had predicted, had played with maturity in a final which had been a great promotion for youth football.
Among those who stood to applaud the champions as they climbed into the stand to claim their medals was Horst Hrubesch, head coach when Germany had last won the Under-19 title in 2008. But, as Niklas Stark lifted the trophy amid a storm of gold confetti barely 18 days after the senior team had raised the FIFA World Cup trophy in Brazil, neutral observers in Budapest asked themselves whether such an impressive performance at Under-19 level heralded the start of a new era.