They say ‘all good things come in threes’, an old adage that certainly applies to the Germany U-17 squad, who qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the third successive time this year. After being knocked out by the eventual champions Nigeria (2007) and Switzerland (2009) in each of their last two appearances at the tournament, they will be hoping it is ‘third time lucky’ at this year’s edition in Mexico.
The young Germans endured a bumpy ride in qualifying. After sailing through the first two rounds without dropping a point, they almost succumbed to an early exit from the subsequent UEFA U-17 European Championship in Serbia. Thankfully their improved performances towards the end of the competition not only secured their ticket for Mexico 2011, but also a place in the final where they lost 5-2 to the Netherlands.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively with coach Steffen Freund, himself a former Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspur and Germany (21 caps) midfield general, about his preparations for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, his team’s group-stage opponents and his hopes and expectations for the tournament this June/July.
FIFA.com: How will you be preparing for the tournament in Mexico over the next few weeks?
Steffen Freund: We’ll be meeting for a fitness test at the end of May where we’ll check the players’ stamina. At the start of June we begin with a recuperation programme following a long hard season. Then on 12 June we’ll be flying to Mexico and we’re very much looking forward to it.
Burkina Faso, Panama and Ecuador are your Group E opponents. What do you already know about them?
We’ve already begun our preparations for the World Cup so naturally we’ve been preparing for our opponents as well. African football has developed well over the last few years. Burkina Faso won the African U-17 Championship and that says a lot about their quality. Ecuador came through a traditionally difficult South American qualifying campaign and debutants Panama shouldn’t be underestimated either. There are no easy opponents at the World Cup. It’s an honour for us to get the chance to play against teams from Central and South America, as well as Africa. We’re really up against the best in the world now.
You attended the group-stage draw. What were your first impressions of Mexico as a host country?
They were very welcoming. The people are really looking forward to the World Cup and they’re expecting five-figure crowds at every game. The draw was a bit like the one for the senior World Cup, so that was nice. The stadiums and the hotels were very impressive.
Who are the favourites for the title? Do Germany have a chance?
Brazil and Argentina, along with European champions Netherlands and Denmark, are probably the leading favourites for this World Cup. There’s always a surprise package, possibly from Africa. Following our experiences at the European Championship we’re just going to take things one game at a time.
What is your minimum goal at the tournament?
We’ve said we want to make it into the second round. Once we’ve achieved that, we’ll have to see.
Tell us about your team: Who are the top performers and key players?
Our goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos has already developed very well, both physically and mentally. He has a great charisma. At centre-back, Koray Gunter is a solid presence and is very strong in the tackle. In midfield, Robin Yalcin and our captain Emre Can dictate the game – they’re both highly-talented footballers who are very good technically and tactically and they both like to take responsibility. Samed Yasil is very important to our attacking game. He’s scored 13 goals in 14 games.
The players are all around 16 or 17 years of age. Are nerves likely to play a part?
The team went through a lot at the European Championship, so I don’t think they’ll be nervous at all. They’re very excited about this tournament and that’s made for a positive kind of tension.
What does it mean to the team to play at a FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico?
Taking on the best teams in the world in Mexico is going to be absolutely great. The World Cup will be a great learning curve for the lads and priceless experience for their future careers.
Toni Kroos and Mario Gotze are just two of the players who have shone at a FIFA U-17 World Cup and gone on to greater things. Could that be the case again this year?
Definitely. The level is very high. The difference in quality to the Bundesliga is becoming less and less, so the players will be well prepared to make the jump to senior level. Taking part in international tournaments like World Cups and European Championships increases their chances of becoming professional footballers. Toni Kroos and Mario Gotze have already trodden that path and they provide the perfect model for my players.