France, Spain, England, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands and
Ukraine have all qualified for the UEFA European U-17 Championship
2007 and will be battling it out for the title from 2-13 May along
with host nation Belgium.
Not only continental supremacy will be at stake, as five qualifying slots for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 will also be up for grabs. The four semi-finalists will secure their FIFA World Cup berths, as will the winner of the play-off between the two third-placed teams in the first-round groups.
The seven teams who made it through to join Belgium had to negotiate an elite qualifying round, and, while most of the favourites emerged successfully, there were also a few surprises. In Group 2, for example, Ukraine came out on top after comfortably beating Czech Republic and Slovakia and then squeezing past Italy 1-0 in their final match, Dimytro Korkishko scoring the goal that sent them off to Belgium at the expense of the Azzurrini.
Germany cruised through Group 1, with coach Paul Schomann's youngsters gaining maximum points from their matches with Greece (4-1), Scotland (4-1) and Republic of Ireland (3-0). "Qualifying for the Euros really is a great success for us," explained Matthias Sammer, Director of Sport at the German Football Association. "The team dominated their qualifying group and thoroughly deserved to go through to the finals in Belgium. After the incredible way they've played, getting through to the World Cup finals is the absolute minimum requirement." Schomann agreed with Sammer, adding "The FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea next August is what we're aiming for. In fact, it's the very least we're aiming for."
England were up against it in Group 3 until Daniel Welbeck gave them a late winner in their final match against Serbia (2-1) to send them into the finals. "I'm really proud of my players," said coach John Peacock. "We won all our three matches and we're really pleased with the way we performed. We've earned this qualification. The top five teams at the European Championship qualify for the World Cup in Korea, and that's objective number two for us."
Iceland shock the favourites
The Netherlands also recorded three straight wins to sail through their qualifying group, with Albert Stuivenberg's young charges beating Wales (1-0), Belarus (5-0) and Turkey (1-0) without conceding a single goal. "Full credit to my boys," said Stuivenberg. "They play really well as a unit and that's our main strength."
However, the real upset in the elite round was provided by Iceland. After opening with a 2-2 draw against Northern Ireland, the rank outsiders also claimed a point with a goalless draw against favourites Portugal. In their final game, Iceland kept everyone on the edge of their seats before beating last year's European champions Russia by the incredible score of 6-5. "I'm really proud of my boys," enthused coach Lukas Kostic. "It's a dream come true for us to have overcome these great footballing nations and qualified for the finals." Iceland's hero turned out to be striker Kolbein Sigthorsson, who scored both of his team's goals against Northern Ireland and netted no fewer than four times against the Russians.
A 0-0 draw against Hungary was enough to see France through as
winners of Group 5 after previous wins against Norway (2-0) and
Finland (3-1), while Spain emerged victorious from a fiercely
competitive Group 7 after beating Switzerland (1-0), Sweden (3-1)
and Poland (1-0). The draw for the finals of the UEFA European U-17
Championship will be held on Wednesday in Brussels, with the group
games set to be played on 2, 4 and 7 May.
The top two from each group will advance to the semi-finals on 10 May, with all four qualifying directly for Korea 2007. There will also be a fifth and final slot available, the destination of which will be decided by a play-off between the third-place teams in each pool. The final will be held in Tournai on Sunday 13 May.