The annual UEFA European U-19 Championship is always a hotly contested affair but the participating nations have a special incentive to excel this time round. While the continent's top eight teams will all be dreaming of lifting the trophy, a third place finish in the group stage will be enough to claim one of the six berths on offer for the FIFA U-20 World Cup to be held in Canada in 2007.
In Group A, the hosts Poland will face Belgium, the Czech Republic and Austria, while Group B throws together Spain, Turkey, Scotland and Portugal. The main aim of all the teams will be to secure at least third place in their group. Reigning champions France were knocked out in the second round of qualification.
Group A: Czech Republic clear favourites
After losing out on qualification in 2004 and 2005 to strong opponents, the Czech Republic are keen to make the most of this opportunity to claim the European crown. Coach Miroslav Soukup has attempted to strike an ideal balance between youthful enthusiasm and experience in his squad. "We are capable of achieving great things," said Martin Fenin, one of the more experienced members of the Czech squad.
"In 2004, we came up against the might of Spain and Cesc Fábregas in the U-17 tournament, while 12 months later we were drawn in a U-19 group featuring Germany and the Netherlands," added Fenin. The teenager made his debut for FK Teplice in the Czech first division at the tender age of 16 back in 2004. "We have a great chance of qualifying for the World Cup in Canada. It would be a dream come true to play there."
Poland, on the other hand, are determined not be remembered solely as welcoming hosts. Their experienced coach Michal Globisz, who has overseen a number of Polish junior teams in the past, has great confidence in his young side. "Tournaments are what players and coaches really live for," stated Globisz. "We know the strengths of our opponents. After all, they have had to come through two testing qualifying rounds."
However, the 59-year-old is quick to underline that the hosts will be not be the whipping boys of the group: "We want to play good football and all the players are keen to show what they are capable of. Of course, we would love to make it into the top six. A trip to Canada where we could mix it with teams from South America and Africa would be an amazing adventure for us."
Indeed, Poland are not short of talent and experience, with five players in the squad already making regular appearances in the top Polish league and three playing abroad. In particular, the hopes of the home fans will be resting on the highly promising striker Dawid Janczyk, who had trials with Chelsea before joining Legia Warsaw in 2005. "He has all the qualities you need to make it to the very top," said former Juventus and Poland star Zbigniew Boniek.
Despite problems in terms of personnel, Austria are also determined to make their presence felt and at least secure a World Cup place. Coach Paul Gludowatz dreams of clinching third spot in Group A and taking his side to its first ever FIFA U-20 World Cup. He is no stranger to the world stage after taking his U-17 side to the World Championship in Egypt in 1997. His luck finally ran out in the land of the pyramids when his boys suffered three clear defeats in as many matches.
Group outsiders Belgium have Timothy Derijck to thank for the fact that they are in Poland in the first place. Their captain headed a dramatic injury time winner to claim a 3-2 win over Northern Ireland and a place at the UEFA European U-19 Championship. Despite the long odds on his side, Belgium trainer Marc van Geersom is in optimistic mood ahead of the competition: "There are no weak teams as the Elite round showed. With a bit of luck, we could reach the semi-final."
Group B: Spain favourites in a tough group
Spain has a long tradition of producing outstanding youth teams. The Iberian side claimed the European U-19 title in 2002 and 2004 and Ginés Meléndez's boys have also impressed en route to Poland. The Spaniards' tally of 15 goals against Sweden, Cyprus and Germany while only conceding two is evidence of their attacking prowess. "We may have drawn a difficult group but we won't be worrying about our opponents. We can look after ourselves," said Meléndez.
The 56-year-old coach considers Group B to be the toughest of the two sections, with Spain having to square up against their Iberian neighbours Portugal, Scotland, who eliminated France in the Elite round, and Turkey, who won the European U-17 Championship last year.
According to Meléndez, his side's success can be attributed to teamwork and the strengths of the 19-year-old midfielder Javí Garcia from Real Madrid, who has excellent qualities both in defence and attack. Meléndez views him as a mixture of Patrick Viera and Claude Makelele but is well aware of his occasional volatility which saw him earn two red cards and 16 cautions in the 2005/2006 season.
Portugal and Turkey are likely to be the main rivals to Spain. Turkey coach Cem Pamiroglu is confident that his team can continue the tradition of strong Turkish youth sides. Two years ago in Switzerland, the Turkish U-19 squad made it all the way to the final but lost out to Spain.
The former Fenerbahce stopper beams with optimism: "There is nothing to stop us becoming European champions. Despite the fact that we have been drawn in a tough group, we have the will and the strength to claim the trophy."
The objective for Portugal coach Carlos Dinis is clear: "Our primary aim is World Cup qualification but we are keen to put on a good show for our fans. We will give everything we have. With all the top European sides in contention, it is sure to be a tough competition."
Outsiders Scotland will be keen to spring a surprise on their more illustrious opponents with their athletic style of play. "We have a host of talented players with a fantastic attitude and a lot of experience. In my opinion, we can travel to Poland with a realistic chance of success," said Archie Gemmill, one of the two coaches of the Scotland U-19 side.
Match schedule at a glance
20 July 2006
6 p.m.: Austria - Czech Republic (Group A)
6 p.m.: Scotland - Spain (Group B)
6 p.m.: Portugal - Turkey (Group B)
8 p.m.: Poland - Belgium (Group A)
23 July 2006
6 p.m.: Portugal - Spain (Group B)
6 p.m.: Turkey - Scotland (Group B)
8 p.m.: Czech Republic - Poland (Group A)
8 p.m.: Austria - Belgium (Group A)
26 July 2006
3.30 p.m. 1st semi-final
6.30 p.m. 2nd semi-final
29 July 2006
8 p.m. Final