For the first time in four years, Italy have managed to qualify for the UEFA European Under-17 Championship giving, according to coach Daniele Zoratto, "fresh enthusiasm and confidence to the whole football movement in the country".
The Azzurrini will face tough opponents Croatia, Russia and Ukraine in Group B from Sunday but Zoratto believes his side can continue to surprise in Slovakia. "I think we are a very compact unit with players who can sacrifice themselves for the good of the team with great determination," he told UEFA.com.
UEFA.com: You qualified for the finals, a great achievement especially considering that Italy have struggled at this level in recent years.
Daniele Zoratto: Regardless of what we did in the past, I think this is a very important result for the whole football movement in the country. It is an achievement which gives fresh enthusiasm and confidence to the whole of football in Italy. We raised the bar, we proved that we were able to reach what is considered a difficult objective, now we have to raise the bar again.
UEFA.com: And you eliminated the Netherlands, who had won the last two editions of the tournament, in the process.
Zoratto: Yes, it was not easy at all in the Netherlands. They won the last two editions, the odds were all against us but we still managed to qualify. It was very difficult but I think we fully deserved the qualification. We also finished ahead of Norway who were coming from a streak of 18 games without defeat, I think. It is an achievement which certainly gives us more confidence for the future, even if we know that other difficult tasks are waiting for us very soon.
UEFA.com: The new Italian Football Federation (FIGC) projects regarding youth teams are starting to bear fruit.
Zoratto: Two teams [U17 and U21] have qualified for the finals, the U19 side are in the elite round and I think they have good chances to make it. I hope they will manage to qualify, so we can say that all our teams qualified for the European Championships. We started a project coordinated by [Arrigo] Sacchi, who brought new working methods and left an important blueprint. For the moment we can see good results and there is great confidence for the future.
UEFA.com: Are you following a special model? Are Spain the example to follow at this level?
Zoratto: No, I think this is our own model. We obviously look around because you can improve by watching others, but I think the idea we are following is 100% ours, Italian.
UEFA.com: How important is that fact that Cesare Prandelli is giving young players many chances at senior level?
Zoratto: I think this is an important factor in evaluating our work. You must consider how many of our players reach the senior national team, which is the most important objective, when considering if we are successful or not. A few players we had here are already playing with the senior national team, players like [Mattia] De Sciglio, [Marco] Verratti and [Stephan] El Shaarawy. This is certainly an extra motivation for players in the current squad.
UEFA.com: What are your main strengths and where do you have to improve?
Zoratto: I think we are a very compact unit with players who can sacrifice themselves for the good of the team with great determination. I think we can play better football, however. Spain are a point of reference in this sense and they are playing better football than us at the moment.
UEFA.com: Striker and captain Alberto Cerri is crucial in your playing system.
Zoratto: He puts the final touch on the hard work of the whole team. No players can do much by themselves. However, Cerri is certainly a crucial player for us, he is very good both technically and physically. Most of all he is very mature, he is already a man. A powerful striker like him, with his physical stature, is certainly a great help for us.
UEFA.com: Croatia, Russia and Ukraine will be in your group. How well do you know them?
Zoratto: We recently faced Spain in a U16 tournament and I talked a lot about Croatia with their coach Santi [Denia]. They faced them in the qualifying campaign and we exchanged some ideas about them. He told me they are very strong physically, very determined and aggressive. They will surely be tough to beat. I think the other two teams in the group are quite similar in terms of approach. Croatia eliminated European powerhouses like Spain and France, Ukraine and Russia finished ahead of Germany and England respectively. The strongest teams in Europe will be at the finals.
UEFA.com: Which team do you consider as favourites to win the tournament?
Zoratto: I'm not sure about the other group but certainly Croatia are very strong. They have great quality and can trouble any team. I have seen Croatian teams fielding players who are 17 or 18 in the UEFA Champions League. It is a great experience for these players. In our team we have only players who play in youth leagues in Italy. We have certainly less experience at this level.
UEFA.com: How important in terms of experience will the finals be?
Zoratto: Qualifying was already a great experience, but facing the best teams in Europe will be something special. It will be a very important lesson for the upcoming years. Many of these players will be busy with U19 qualification and doing that after taking part in a tournament like this will certainly help them. But for the time being we only focus on trying to reach the final or qualifying for the [FIFA U-17] World Cup.
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