Eighteen nations around the globe have already booked places at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2013, to be held from 17 October until 8 November in the United Arab Emirates. All the confirmed starters so far fought their way through fiercely-contested qualifying contests before securing places at the global showdown.
The hosts, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Côte d'Ivoire, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Nigeria, Panama, Tunisia, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Venezuela are already certain to feature at the tournament in the Middle East, but the remaining six places allocated to European nations are still up for grabs.
Eight teams are now poised to do battle for the open tickets, as the best junior players in Europe go head-to-head in Slovakia from Sunday 5 May until 17 May. The contenders are split into two groups, with the top three teams in each group qualifying for the UAE finals.
Hosts meet former world champions
“I hope we can make a good job of it and help Slovakian football move forward. I think it’s only the second competition of this type to take place in Slovakia. It's a good thing for football here, it means there's more focus on the game and also makes it more transparent," said no less a figure than Martin Skrtel, Slovakia captain and a first-team regular for English Premier League outfit Liverpool.
The hosts meet Austria, Sweden and Switzerland in Group A, with the Slovaks and the Scandinavians both making maiden appearances at a UEFA European U-17 Championship. By contrast, the Swiss won the continental crown in 2002, and went one better at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2009 in Nigeria by lifting the trophy. Austria came third in the European contest in 2004 and return to the fray for the first time since then.
In Group B, Croatia, Italy, Russia and Ukraine are the teams going for glory. The top two in each group progress to the semi-finals on 14 May, with the new European champions set to be crowned three days later.
Rocky road to the championships
Intriguingly, none of the teams which contested the 2012 finals in Slovenia has made it to the Slovakia edition of the tournament. European champions the Netherlands were knocked out by Italy, Germany fell to Ukraine, and Croatia triumphed in a group including former champions France and Spain. Apart from Switzerland, Russia are the only previous winners competing at this year's tournament.
It goes to show just how closely-matched the youth national teams in Europe have become, and demonstrates the difficulty of qualifying for, let alone winning, the U-17 European crown.
The qualifying competition began last autumn with 52 teams split into 13 groups of four. The top two in each group plus the two best third-placed teams, determined by results against the top two in each group, went forward to the so-called elite round. These 28 teams were assigned to seven groups of four, with only the winners joining the hosts at the finals.
“The lads are about to take some very important steps towards becoming genuinely good players at some point. Tournaments like this are incredibly helpful in bringing them on," Marek Hamsik explained in an interview for UEFA.com, the European governing body's official website. The Slovakia international, on the books at top Italian club Napoli since 2007, represented his country at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Three previous world champions from Europe
Naturally, only time will tell if the best players from this year’s U-17 European showdown do end up as stars of tomorrow's game. In the first instance, the task is to focus on the three group matches and secure the chance of a crack at the world title.
And who knows? Perhaps another European nation will follow in the footsteps of Switzerland (2009), France (2001) and the former Soviet Union (1987) and go on to claim the FIFA World Cup at the most junior level.