The UEFA European Under-17 Championship proved an entertaining spectacle on the pitch and in the stands. Three years on from successfully staging the FIFA World Cup™ finals, hosts Germany once again showed their ability to turn a football tournament into a festival. And there was a happier ending for the Germans this time too, as their youngsters won the title in style to lay down a significant marker ahead of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009.
Judging by the strength of their challenge, beaten finalists the Netherlands should have plenty to say in Africa as well, while deposed champions Spain will be anxious to make up for their disappointing group exit. Completing the sextet of European representatives in Nigeria are Italy, Switzerland and Turkey.
FIFA.com looks back at 12 days of intense competition, as Europe's leading U-17 sides battled it out for continental supremacy and a place in the global showpiece later this year.
Third at the last FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2007, Germany showed that they have another generation of talented performers to call on. Making the most of home advantage, the hosts were typically solid at the back and inventive up front, qualifying for the final with ease and scoring 13 goals while conceding only two. Marco Pezzaiuoli's young charges then showed their mental resolve in Sunday's meeting with the Dutch, coming from behind to win in extra time and claim the European U-17 title for the first time ever, nearly two decades on from the last of their two U-16 championship successes.
Germany's comeback provided an unhappy end to a highly promising tournament for the Netherlands. Faithful to the traditions of the Dutch game, the Jong Oranjes produced a fluid passing game to seal their return to the world elite four years on from their third place at Peru 2005. Denied a berth in the final by the boys in orange, Switzerland can at least take satisfaction from qualifying for their first FIFA U-17 World Cup finals and from topping a daunting Group A ahead of title contenders Italy, Spain and France.
Italy left it late before qualifying second behind the Swiss. Having collected only one point from their opening two games, I Azzurrini trailed to the French in their final group match before turning the game around to win 2-1 and book their tickets to the last four. That victory also sealed their place in Nigeria after missing out on Korea two years ago.
Turkey and Spain finished third in both sections to secure their passage to Africa. Needing three points in their final Group B outing against Korea 2007 quarter-finalists England, the Turks left it very late, Furkan Seker scoring the all-important winner six minutes from time.
Spain's bid for a third consecutive continental title was undone by their lack of finishing power. The Spaniards failed to score a single goal in their meetings with Italy, France and Switzerland. Yet they did not concede either and three straight 0-0 draws were enough to clinch their place in Nigeria. The task now facing Gines Melendez's side is to go one better than their immediate predecessors, who finished runners-up at Korea 2007 thanks in no small part to a series of inspirational displays from Barcelona starlet Bojan Krkic.
The other teams
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole tournament was France's exit in the group phase. One of only two European nations ever to have won the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the French can point to the fact they were drawn in the tougher of the two sections. Even so, with the experienced Philippe Bergeroo on the bench, a member of Aime Jacquet's coaching staff at France 1998, Les Mini Bleus would have expected to finish among the top three. Two draws and a defeat left them empty handed, however.
John Peacock's England side brought up the rear in Group B. After holding the Dutch to a 1-1 draw and then losing to the tournament hosts, the English only needed a point against Turkey to seal third place. Seker's dramatic late strike put paid to those hopes, however.
Players to watch
So who will be Europe's stars of tomorrow? The European Under-17 Championship provided a few possible answers to that question. Two youngsters to impress up front were Germany's Lennart Thy and Netherlands' Luc Castaignos, who both scored three goals, including one each in the final, and revealed their gift for being in the right place at the right time.
Midfielders Christopher Buchtmann and Mario Gotze, who play their club football for Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund respectively, shone in playmaking roles for the newly crowned champions, while team-mate Florian Trinks showcased his dead-ball skills by firing Germany's extra-time winner in the final.
Feyenoord winger Shabir Isoufi patrolled the right flank with distinction for the Netherlands, drawing favourable comparisons with Dutch wing wizard Marc Overmars. And Turkey's goalkeeper Deniz Mehmet showed just how much he has learnt at West Ham United's academy, where he has followed in the footsteps of luminaries such as Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand.