The FIFA U-17 World Cup 2015 kicks off in Chile in less than 150 days, and while many of the tournament’s participants in other corners of the globe were confirmed long ago, qualification only came to a head in Europe over the past two weeks.
The 16 teams at the UEFA European U-17 Championship were battling it out for not only this age group’s continental title but also the six remaining tickets to South America. France, Germany, Russia, Croatia, England and Belgium will be the lucky sides bidding for World Cup glory between 17 October and 8 November.
The first two names on this list – dubbed the “two best teams at the finals” by Germany coach Christian Wuck – also contested the tournament showpiece. On their way to the final, both nations remained unbeaten with four wins, one draw and one penalty shoot-out victory each. France found the net 11 times and conceded just once, while their opponents kept clean sheets in all five of their previous matches.
Edouard outshines the rest
Germany’s defensive stronghold was finally breached in the 30th and final game of the European U-17 Championships. It was an experience France supremo Jean-Claude Giuntini called the best of his career and one captain Timothe Cognat will not forget for the rest of his life, but there is no doubt that the matchwinner was striker and hat-trick hero Odsonne Edouard, who took his goal tally for the tournament to eight to secure the golden boot and set a new competition record in the process.
Having been responsible for more than half of his team’s 15 goals, the 17-year-old explained to UEFA.com: “Emotions are running so high; it’s just such a joy to be European champions now. I’m pleased to be top goalscorer, but I’m even happier about the title.”
Les Petits Bleus' youngsters were not the only sides to avoid defeat in open play throughout the tournament. Croatia exited on penalties in the last eight, while the Netherlands recorded three Group D draws and were eliminated after the group stage. Scotland and Slovenia, for their part, were the only two teams to return home without scoring a single point.
The two eventual finalists stood out from the very start. Playing in Groups C and B respectively, the champions and runners-up were the only sides to emerge from the group stage with maximum points. Holders England secured first place in Group D with seven points from three games, just as Croatia did in Group A. Hosts Bulgaria finished last in the same group at their first European U-17 Championship finals, while 2013 U-17 World Cup contenders Austria also suffered an early exit.
Germany’s youngsters lose third final
The excitement of the quarter-finals was almost unparalleled, with two ties decided by spot-kicks as Germany got the better of Spain and Belgium held their nerve against Croatia. They were joined in the semi-finals by France, who defeated Italy 3-0, and Russia, who secured a narrow 1-0 win over England. With four of Europe’s six World Cup places now allocated, Croatia and England snatched the remaining two tickets to Chile by winning their play-off matches.
Although the French goal machine faltered a little in the last four, goalkeeper Luca Zidane – son of world and European champion Zinedine – emerged the hero after making three invaluable shoot-out saves, while Germany narrowly beat Russia 1-0 in the other semi-final.
In the end it was France who held the European U-17 Championship trophy aloft for the second time after victory in 2004, while Germany missed out on a fourth continental crown with their third final defeat at this level. “We head back to Germany very proud, and we will now think about the U-17 World Cup in Chile,” an emotional Wuck said after his side’s loss.
While it remains to be seen if a European team can clinch the World Cup title for the fourth time after previous victories for the Soviet Union in 1987, France in 2001 and Switzerland in 2009, this competition showed that there is no doubting the quality of the Old Continent’s representatives.