A total of 18 teams from Asia, Africa, Oceania, South America and North, Central America and the Caribbean have already secured their tickets for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2011. Only the six European participants remain to be confirmed, but that is all set to change starting tomorrow, when eight nations will fight it out at the UEFA European U-17 Championship in Serbia to determine which of them will make it to the worldwide showdown in Mexico beginning in June.
The hosts have been drawn alongside title holders England, France (2004 European champions) and Denmark in Group A, while 2009 champs Germany take on the Netherlands, 2006 runners-up Czech Republic and debutants Romania in Group B. The top three in each group will qualify directly for Mexico 2011.
Switzerland and Spain sidelined
Since the autumn, 52 national youth teams have been battling to qualify for the UEFA European U-17 Championship 2011. Split into 13 groups of four, the top two teams in each, as well as the two best runners-up, won the right to compete in the Elite Round. At this stage, the 28 remaining sides were divided into a further seven groups of four, with only the group winners earning a ticket for Serbia.
Surprisingly there were a number of high-profile casualties in this final stage. Reigning U-17 world champions Switzerland bowed out following a 2-0 defeat to neighbours Germany, while Spain, having won two European titles in the past four years, also missed out on a place in Serbia following a decisive 2-1 defeat to England.
'We can beat anyone'
Consequently, only three (England, Germany and France) of the eight previous U-17 European champions remain in the race for the 2011 crown.
Germany coach Steffen Freund is optimistic his side can reclaim the trophy they last won in 2009, beating the Netherlands 2-1 in the final. The former international said: "We won all six of our qualifying matches and that gives us plenty of confidence, but we still have games to play. The European Championship will be the lads' first major tournament so we need to make sure we perform under pressure. But we're still Germany and we're strong enough to beat anyone."
Considering they boast the second-best attack (19 goals) and the best defence (only two conceded) in the competition so far, Germany have every right to consider themselves among the favourites.
Bad omen for the favourites?
Indeed, many believe their greatest threat to the title will be England, who are hoping to reproduce their excellent 2009/10 form of 11 wins from 11 games (through qualifying and the final tournament). John Peacock's charges have already dropped points this year, however, winning five and drawing one of their six qualification matches so far.
Serbia will clearly be hopeful of causing an upset with home advantage on their side, but only Germany have managed to lift the trophy on home turf at U-17 level, in 2008/09. Aside from Spain, no team has ever managed to successfully defend their title in nine previous editions of the tournament, or even win a second title - a bad omen for supposed favourites England, Germany and France? This surely means the sides yet to win a European title - Denmark, Netherlands, Romania and Czech Republic - can't be written off yet.
Following in Fabregas' footsteps
However the tournament plays out, one thing is for certain is that some of game's future stars will be on show during the competition. Just some of the names to have earned their stripes in the competition in the past include Karim Benzema (France) and Gerard Pique (Spain), who now ply their trade for Spanish powerhouses Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively.
Further luminaries to have graced the tournament include Cesc Fabregas (Spain) and Samir Nasri (France), both now of Arsenal, as well as Bayern Munich's Toni Kroos (Germany) and Barcelona's Bojan Krkic (Spain). Perhaps in a few years time we'll be looking back on the year Fabian Himcinschi (Romania), Samed Yesil (Germany) and Abdallah Yaisien (France) first made their made their names on the international stage.
Once the European qualifiers for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2011 in Mexico have been established, the six lucky teams have the draw to look forward to on 17 May, just four weeks before the spectacle itself begins on 18 June.