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Stephan El Shaarawy has enjoyed a meteoric rise since helping Italy reach the 2009 UEFA European Under-17 Championship semi-finals, and in a week when the Azzurrini will discover their opposition after qualifying for the first time since that season in Thursday's draw live on UEFA.com, the AC Milan forward believes the experience contributed to him becoming the player he is today.
The 'Little Pharaoh' had already made his Serie A debut with Genoa CFC a few months before that tournament in Germany, also a springboard for the likes of Isco, Jack Wilshere and Mario Götze. El Shaarawy then joined Milan in 2011 after being voted Serie B player of the year for his performances with Padova Calcio – and during his second, scintillating season with the Rossoneri he has become Milan's youngest UEFA Champions League goalscorer and made his senior Italy bow.
Now 20, he remembers that U17 championship well. "The EURO with the U17 team was very important, as was the [FIFA U-17] World Cup we played," El Shaarawy said. "They're all experiences which have helped me, which have made me grow."
Four summers ago he already sported his trademark mohawk haircut. "It was created when I was at school and I've had it ever since," he explained, adding that the hero of his youth was Kaká. "People have compared me a lot to him. He is the player who inspired me the most."
What stands out most for El Shaarawy from those finals games in Leipzig, Jena and Magdeburg, however, is the know-how he gained from "facing players from different countries, with different characteristics and different systems of play", adding: "They're all experiences that help you."
Especially once he started to play in the UEFA Champions League with Milan, it seems. "European competition is definitely different," said the 'veteran' of 50 top-flight appearances for the Rossoneri. "It's harder, more difficult, so it's obvious you need more determination and more concentration. But with the experience I've been getting, I feel good in it."
So comfortable, in fact, that he registered his first UEFA Champions League goal in a 3-2 group stage win at FC Zenit St Petersburg in October. "It was a great game, a really tight victory, and the goal I scored was really nice."
He soon opened his senior Azzurri account too, in November's 2-1 friendly defeat by France. "Unique emotions," El Shaarawy recalls of his national-team breakthrough. "To score a goal against such a big team as France was great, really satisfying."
So what advice would the battle-hardened striker give to young players participating at this year's U17 tournament in Slovakia, for which the draw is made in Senec on Thursday? "To never let go," El Shaarawy replied. "I have learned to make a lot of effort and sacrifice for this sport, and now I can say it's paying me back. So it is important to always show determination and effort on the pitch."
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