In July 2005, Russia's U-19 side were crowned European champions after defeating France in a penalty shoot-out in the final. The success of Valentin Grishin's side was down in no small measure to the precocious skills and goal-scoring instinct of their leading striker Elena Danilova. Not only did the FC Ryazan VDV forward pick up the tournament top-scorer award in Hungary, she also established herself as one of the most promising talents in Russian football.
Her dazzling displays so impressed Yuri Bystritskiy, coach of the women's senior team, that he immediately promoted Danilova to his squad ahead of the team's qualifiers for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007. On her full debut recently for the senior team, the young Russian justified the coach's faith in her, scoring one of her side's six goals in a resounding defeat of Scotland.
Asked about the phenomenal success she has enjoyed in recent months, the grinning 18-year-old is unable to suppress her elation. "It's impossible to express in words how we felt on winning the European Championship," she tells FIFA.com with a glint in her eye.
"Unfortunately, we came up short in 2004, but this year we concentrated all our efforts on this tournament, even to the detriment of our national championship," the player adds. It was a strategy that paid off handsomely.
The victorious players had little time to dwell on their success, however, returning immediately to their club sides and the weekly grind of the domestic championship. For Elena, this meant duty with FC Ryazan VDV and catching up with her studies in physical education in her native Voronezh.
With neither a family background in football nor a famous female player as her inspiration, it was purely by chance that Danilova stumbled into the sport back in 1998. "I was running round the sports track at the local stadium when the coach of the side that played there asked me if I'd like to join the club. It was the first I had heard of it," she explains. "My younger sister has since followed in my footsteps and was called up recently to the Russian U-16 side," she adds proudly.
Russia's quest for a European title got off to the worst possible start with a painful 4-0 defeat against France in their opening game. However, they bounced back with wins against Scotland and England in their subsequent group games to book a place in the last four. "It was a real struggle to pick ourselves up after our opening-day defeat, especially from a psychological point of view. Through it all though, we never lost faith in ourselves or in our ability."
Next to fall prey to Danilova's marksmanship were favourites Germany, who were sent packing courtesy of a hat-trick by the Russian sharpshooter (3-1). "That was a very special game. Perhaps it was an even more important win for us than the final itself. Our only thought was to beat Germany and prove we were a match for them," she remarks.
"The group's strength lies in its enormous desire and team spirit. There is no one leader in the side. Everyone is of equal importance in the dressing room," Elena explains simply. On the subject of her coach, the player only has positive things to say: "The training has become much more interesting over the last couple of years. The coach pays a lot of attention to how we play the game. It has been marvellous working with him."
Valentin Grishin's side now have their sights firmly set on next year's FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship in their homeland. Elena knows that being hosts as well as European champions brings with it greater expectancy. "Yes, it will be an added pressure and responsibility. The watching world will be expecting great things from this side, so we'll be doing everything possible not to disappoint them," she says.
"For the moment we haven't set ourselves any fixed targets. Even so, we're already clear that we want to put in a great performance…and get a great result," she says with a broad smile. The team's success this summer in Hungary is sure to help fill the stadiums next year at the youth showcase in Russia and raise public interest in the progress of the national team.
And although these hardworking youngsters do not want to get ahead of themselves, their philosophy is to keep making steady progress at each new tournament. After next year's FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship, their next challenge will be to qualify for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007.
On a personal level, Elena Danilova also wants to take it one step at a time. "I want to improve my skills and my overall play. I'd also like to play overseas some day. In fact, I've already had offers from German and US sides, but I don't think I'm ready to leave Russia yet. My goal is to be the best player in the game and become FIFA World Player of the Year at least once."