The UEFA European Under-17 Championship consists of three distinct stages: the qualifying round, the elite round and the final tournament. The format changed for 2014/15 with the expansion of the final tournament from eight to 16 teams.
The qualifying round, played in autumn, is made up of 13 groups of four countries playing in one-venue mini-tournaments. The top two from each pool progress alongside the five third-placed sides with the best record against the leading pair in their groups.
In the elite round, held in early spring, those 31 qualifiers plus the top seed – given a bye this far – compete in eight mini-tournament groups of four. The group winners and seven runners-up with the best record against the teams first and third in their section advance to the finals to join the hosts.
In the final tournament the contenders are split into four groups of four, with the front two from each proceeding to the knockout phase.
Further details, including the criteria for separating sides that finish level on points in a group, or after 80 minutes in a match, can be found in the official competition regulations.
Later this year, qualifying will begin for the 2013/14 UEFA European Under-17 Championship and the final tournament is guaranteed to be historic.
For the first time a UEFA competition will conclude in Malta, the island nation staging the finals in May 2014, the last before the U17 showpiece event expands from eight to 16 teams the following season. Jesmond Abela, tasked with helping develop the hosts' young talent as operations manager of the Malta Football Association (MFA) technical centre, knows it is a unique opportunity.
"We are in a position that has never occurred before," Abela told UEFA.com. "And I think it will not occur again as this is the last eight-team tournament. It is our only chance for our boys to participate in such a high-level tournament as usually we are out in the qualifying round, we are the minnows. We would like to take a little taste of the big time."
Although this is an unprecedented step for Malta, they are used to welcoming international sides for friendly events and youth qualifying mini-tournaments. "It will surely generate interest," Abela said. "We have hosted a lot of international tournaments and we have done well, it is not a problem.
"It's a milestone for us, it's a milestone for the association. The new administration has been working hard and we have been given faith through our track record, we have always managed to succeed in organising events. They have given us a gift in letting us do this."
The greatest challenge of all will be for the squad themselves – mainly born in 1997 and set to become the first Malta side to participate in any competitive final tournament. "We are preparing them through international matches and through encounters with different countries," Abela said.
"We have already been to Italy; we will host a tournament in March; and we will participate in Greece in a U16 development tournament together with Azerbaijan. We will look to all possibilities so we can give our best. The group of boys are very enthusiastic about it. We have brought over an Argentinian coach from Italy [Sergio Soldano] to look after the academy so we are preparing well for the occasion."
Soldano was not the only foreign coach to arrive at the MFA in 2012. In the summer Italian trainer Pietro Ghedin left the helm of Italy's women's squad to start his second spell leading Malta's senior men's squad. Abela is plain about the crucial nature of importing coaches.
"It is very important," he said. "We are very small and we are an island, it is not just a question of crossing the border by bus. We need to import good foreign coaches, as these bring with them a lot of international experience."
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