There may be a year to go until UEFA EURO 2012 commences, but the eyes of co-hosts Poland and Ukraine are already fixed on potential heroes who could make their mark between now and next summer.
Ukraine's pre-tournament planning will take a different route to that of their fellow hosts when their Under-21 team line up in this month's UEFA European Championship finals in Denmark.
"I would recommend our national coach tries all my players," said U21 coach Pavlo Yakovenko. "I will be happy if they succeed at the U21 finals in Denmark and then defend our country's honour at UEFA EURO 2012. I expect us to play to win, as always, and that we will succeed. I'm not sure we will win but that's what we want and we will aim for it."
Absent from U21 finals since the 2006 tournament in Portugal, Ukraine nevertheless have the pedigree to suggest they could challenge. Runners-up five years ago, the current crop have been tipped by some as being better than the class of 1994-96, which included future senior stalwarts Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov.
Looking to follow in such illustrious footsteps, having already tasted full international football, are the likes of Roman Zozulya, Andriy Yarmolenko, Artem Kravets, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, Taras Stepanenko, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Mykola Morozyuk. Established at their clubs, Yakovenko's leading lights will be desperate for a taste of tournament glory.
They will likely be aided by Serhiy Kryvtsov, Denys Garmash, Kyrylo Petrov and Bohdan Butko, all members of Ukraine's 2009 UEFA European U19 Championship-winning side. If success does indeed breed success, Ukraine will want to find themselves better placed for a glorious UEFA EURO 2012 come the end of events in Denmark in June.
Although Poland have no such U21 dress rehearsal, there are nevertheless a host of youngsters eyeing a spot in the senior setup. Defender Maciej Sadlok, 21, for example, is desperate to pit his wits against the continent's most potent strikers.
"I am still very young so the amount of games I have played for Poland is not so bad," said Sadlok, who has 14 caps. "What is more, I played 90 minutes in most of them. Not long ago I would never have believed I would one day be playing for the national team. Then I would never have believed I could play in such an amazing tournament – now I am close to that. One step at a time, I am realising my dreams."
Aspiring footballers across Poland are seeking to emulate Sadlok's achievements, with the carrot of featuring in such a prestigious championship on home soil providing an even greater incentive.
"It is exciting that in one year we will hold such a big tournament," he added. "Two years ago Poland was a country without new stadiums and now they are growing so quickly. I live in Warsaw so I sometimes drive close to the National Stadium, which has been built for the EURO. Every time I see progress there, I think how amazing it would be to play there on 8 June next year, in the first EURO match."
Though Poland have had mixed results in recent fixtures – drawing 0-0 with Greece, losing 2-0 to Lithuania but beating Norway 1-0 and Argentina 2-1 – Sadlok remains upbeat. "Sometimes you play badly in friendlies, but very well in important matches," he added. "I hope it will be the same with us. I am not the only young player who dreams about playing in the finals. I think my [KSP Polonia Warszawa] team-mate Artur Sobiech also has a real chance.
"Michał Kucharczyk from Legia Warszawa is doing very well at the moment too. We will show the world a young team with some experienced players. I hope this mixture will be explosive. Also, from a personal point of view it is exciting. A tournament like this gives the opportunity for defenders to test themselves against the best European strikers. I would take up this challenge with pleasure. Meeting Wayne Rooney and the like would be priceless."
This article first appeared in Alive, the official UEFA EURO 2012 newsletter. Click here to download your copy.
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