As Wednesday's big kick-off draws ever closer, all those involved in the UEFA U-17 Championship 2007 in Belgium will be acutely aware of just how much there is to play for. Quite apart from the glory of being crowned European U-17 champions in the Final on 13 May, eight nations will battle it out across six venues for five coveted spots at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 .
The top two teams in both groups as well as the winner of a play-off between the two third-placed sides will qualify for the finals to be held in Korea Republic from 18 August until 9 September.
Group A looks to be particularly tight, with Germany, France, Spain and surprise package the Ukraine all drawn together. Germany sailed through both rounds of qualifiers, registering three wins out of three in Group 1 of March's six-group Elite Round, and are one of the favourites for the title in Belgium.
"The team were really impressive and convincing, proving that they deserve to be among Europe's top eight," said coach Paul Schomann. "Our aim, and what all these lads are dreaming of, is qualifying for the U-17 World Championship. That would be a real challenge."
Germany's first opponents on Wednesday will be the Ukraine, who amazed fans and pundits alike by emerging from an Elite Round pool containing Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Italy. "At this age group, confidence is everything," explained coach Yuriy Kalitvintsev. "Two years ago, I set my lads the target of qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Championship. We're now only one step away and just need to finish in the top five of the European Championship."
The French have also set themselves a similar goal. "We'll be facing tough opposition," commented coach François Blaquart. "But we obviously want to qualify for the next World Championship, hopefully as one of the top two in our group."
Spain will be banking on a good tournament from Barcelona forward Bojan Krkic. The prodigiously talented 16-year-old recently made his Barça debut in a friendly against top Egyptian club Al Ahly, notching one of the goals in the Catalans' emphatic 4-0 win. "I've never seen a player this young with so much talent," enthused Spain coach Juan Santisteban . "He has an incredible eye for goal and is technically brilliant."
England hotly fancied
The spectators should also be treated to some close, exciting matches in Group B, where dark horses Iceland will be keen to cause an upset against England, the Netherlands and hosts Belgium. England are favourites to finish among the top two in the group. "We have a talented group of players and are full of confidence going into the tournament," explained coach John Peacock. "It won't be easy, but we're looking forward to it and obviously hope to qualify for the World Championship."
The Netherlands, who featured at the last FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru in 2005, are also aiming for a top two finish in order to secure a qualifying berth. "We've got a good team and we earned our spot here in Belgium," explained coach Albert Stuivenberg, whose team beat fellow qualifiers Ukraine 2-0 last week in a friendly. "Now we need to finish things off, and we hope that we'll make it to Korea."
Iceland are the real unknown quantity of Group B. Lukas Kostic's boys are seen as rank outsiders, but their opponents would do well to be wary of a team which made it through the Elite Round at the expense of Portugal and current holders Russia. Spearheading the Icelandic bid will be striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who managed a haul of four goals in the incredible 6-5 win over the Russians and is currently being tracked by a number of top European clubs. "This European Championship is going to be one of the high points in the history of football in Iceland," said Kostic. "We've already made history, and the boys have every right to go out there with their chests puffed out."
Hosts Belgium, meanwhile, are determined to make home advantage count. "We want to perform to the best of our abilities and have a good tournament," underlined coach Bob Browaeys. "We're aiming for one of the top five spots to ensure that we qualify for the World Championship."