The eight national teams convening in Denmark for the 2011 UEFA European U-21 Championship will not be lacking in motivation when the tournament begins on Saturday. As well as the kudos of becoming continental champions, there are also three places at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 to be claimed (click on the link on the right to see the London 2012 qualification criteria).
“Missing out on the Olympics again would be a failure,” said Barcelona’s highly rated midfielder Thiago, one of the stars of a side that is hoping to take Spain back to the Games for the first time since Sydney 2000, when they collected the silver medal. Crowned European champions in 1986 and 1998, the Spanish have been drawn in a tough-looking Group B alongside fellow two-time winners England and 2002 victors Czech Republic. Making up the pool are Ukraine, runners-up five years ago.
La Roja will have plenty of firepower at their disposal, having drafted FIFA World Cup™ winners Javi Martinez and Juan Manuel Mata into their squad. “It’s not a problem for us at all,” Valencia man Mata told FIFA.com just before jetting off to Denmark. “We’re delighted to be here and to help the team. It would be a big blow if we didn’t make it to the Olympics.” “We’ve got a great chance of getting there,” said team-mate Martinez in equally optimistic mood.
Spain are far from the only team to count on a solid core of players with extensive experience of top-flight and full national team football. Equally inspired by the incentive of a place at next year’s Olympics, the Czechs will be looking to Tomas Pekhart to show the same prowess that brought him nine goals in the qualifiers, during which they won seven and drew one of their eight games, knocking out title holders Germany in the process.
England have defensive problems to contend with following the injury-enforced withdrawals of West Ham United’s James Tomkins and Kieran Gibbs of Arsenal. On the bright side they have three experienced hands in Michael Mancienne, Fabrice Muamba and Jack Rodwell, all survivors from the defeat to Germany in the 2009 final, while team-mates Danny Welbeck and Jordan Henderson have both made their full international debuts.
Ukraine also have a clutch of players with full international caps and UEFA Champions League experience to their name, with league champions Dynamo Kiev and Shakthar Donetsk providing the bulk of their squad.
While most eyes will be on Group B, there should be no lack of excitement in Group A, where hosts Denmark will be joined by Switzerland, Belarus and Iceland.
The Icelanders were the top scorers in the qualification rounds with 33 goals, including a shock 4-1 defeat of the Germans, a result they backed up by downing England in a recent friendly. Belarus also sprang a surprise or two in reaching the finals, not least when they knocked out Italy in the play-offs.
“Although Switzerland are never favourites in the group phase, our goal is to reach the semis,” said their coach Pierluigi Tami, who is banking on the talents of Benjamin Siegrist, Pajtim Kasami, Nassim Ben Khalifa and Granit Xhaka, all of whom starred in the central European side’s triumph at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009.
As for the host nation, they did their confidence a power of good in thrashing Turkey 4-0 in a warm-up game on Monday, and despite having not played a competitive game in the last two years, Keld Bordinggaard’s side are confident their supporters can cheer them to their Olympic objective.