When Italy and Russia step out onto the Štadión MŠK Žilina pitch on Friday, Serge Akakpo will be transported back nearly a decade. As a 16-year-old, the pacy full-back emerged into the Stade Gaston Petit in Chateauroux in the France team to take on Spain in the 2004 final. Some 80 minutes later, courtesy of a Samir Nasri winner a minute from time, Akakpo and the hosts were European champions.
"When I learned the 2013 tournament would be played here in Slovakia, I was really happy. It brought back a lot of great memories. I went to see the game between Slovakia and Switzerland and I had flashbacks," Akakpo, who now plays for MŠK Žilina, told UEFA.com. "In the Slovak team, there are some young players who are with me here in Zilina. Before they left for the tournament, I told them to do all they could to win it, because it's something unique, something that stays with you forever."
The memories of the triumph clearly remain as vivid as ever for Akakpo, 25. "It's something you don't forget," said the Togo-born defender, who saw Kévin Constant give France a first-minute lead in the 2004 showpiece only for Gerard Piqué to equalise midway through the second half for a highly fancied Spanish side that also featured Cesc Fàbregas. "When Piqué equalised, I was really afraid. I thought we'd let something slip away. But we had talent too. When Nasri picked up the ball, I felt he was going to score. I was confident, and when he scored it was magnificent."
Either the Italy or the Russia squad will get to experience the same ecstasy come Friday. Regardless of the level of success achieved in Slovakia, however, Akakpo, who grew up outside Paris but now plays his senior international football for Togo, is convinced the players of all eight finalists will end the 2013 edition better for the experience.
"Later in your career, you feel the difference between players who did tournaments when they were 17, 18, and those who didn't," Akakpo, who figured in Togo's run to the quarter-finals of this year's Africa Cup of Nations, explained in the sun in Zilina's picturesque central square. "They're experiences which stay with you. If you play in the semi-final or final of a U17 EURO, when you play in senior tournaments later in your career, you can step back from things. You have a certain experience of big moments, handling pressure and the crowd. It helps a lot."
It is not a guarantee of making it big in the professional game, though. While Nasri, Jérémy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa went on to establish themselves at senior international level, other team-mates– like Akakpo, who started out at AJ Auxerre and has since played in Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia – have had less glamorous careers.
However, having shunned interest from Liverpool FC, Chelsea FC and FC Internazionale Milano in his late teens to remain at Auxerre, Akakpo warned the youngsters in Slovakia that all that glitters is not necessarily gold. "If they're good in the club where they have come through the ranks, it's always better to stay as long as possible," he said. "It's not enough to leave just because it's a big club and you're going to earn a lot of money. You have to go to a club where you're going to play. You have to have good people around you, and above all trust in yourself. Football is a job in which the person who has your best interests at heart most is you."
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