After travelling a long road to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2015 in Chile, the end is in sight for Europe’s national teams. 52 sides began their campaigns last September, and after the first round of matches in September and October 2014, qualification moved into an elite round in March 2015 before the UEFA U-17 Championship takes place in Bulgaria between 6 and 22 May. This competition will feature 16 European participants for the first time since 2002, including defending champions England and former winners France, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands and Germany.
“It’s one of the biggest events we’ve hosted in this country,” said a delighted Borislav Mihaylov, president of the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) in a conversation with European governing body UEFA. “The most important aspect is promoting the sport to the younger generation and selecting locations, stadiums and venues to kindle a love of football among Bulgaria’s young people.” Burgas, Sozopol, Stara Zagora and Sliven have been selected as the host cities.
With their fans behind them, hosts and tournament debutants Bulgaria will be seeking to spring a surprise in Group A against two-time European champions Spain as well as Croatia and Austria. The clear favourites in Group B are Germany who have been handed a seemingly straightforward draw in the form of the Czech Republic, Belgium and Slovenia – but in Jan Mlakar the Slovenians have the current top goalscorer from European qualifying in their ranks, with eight strikes to his name. “Our minimum target is to qualify for the World Cup,” said German U-17 coach Christian Wuck confidently. “Otherwise we want to progress as far as possible, of course, and that means becoming European champions.”
The two remaining groups each contain two former winners of the competition. Greece and Scotland will be hoping to shock Russia and France in Group C, while heavyweights England and the Netherlands will go head-to-head in Group D in a repeat of last year’s final. Italy and Republic of Ireland complete the line-up in the fourth and final pool.
The strongest two teams from each group will progress. In addition to the four semi-finalists, two of the defeated quarter-finalists will also book tickets to Chile via a play-off.
*Groups at a glance
*Group A: Bulgaria (hosts), Croatia, Spain, Austria*
Group B:* Germany, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Belgium*
Group C: Greece, Russia, Scotland, France
Group D: *Republic of Ireland, Netherlands, Italy, England
2003 European champions Portugal have been relegated to mere onlookers together with Sweden, who finished third at the U-17 World Cup 2013 in the United Arab Emirates. Slovakia are another side to make a premature exit from the race to Chile after taking part in the last global summit for this age group. Meanwhile, there is still a strong chance that this autumn’s U-17 World Cup will feature at least one debutant, with four teams – Bulgaria, Slovenia, Greece and Republic of Ireland – yet to qualify for the finals at this level.
The six European participants for the tournament in Chile between 17 October and 8 November this year will finally be determined on 19 May to complete the 24-strong field. Only then can the successful sextet truly look forward to what the competition’s slogan calls una fiesta en nuestra cancha – ‘a party on our pitch’.