The UEFA European Under-17 Championship kicks off in Slovakia on Sunday – and few will take a closer interest than Ľubomir Moravčík.
Capped 80 times by Czechoslovakia and Slovakia, the talented midfielder played in France, Germany, Scotland and Japan, most notably at Celtic FC where he helped them to a 2000/01 Scottish treble.
A former Slovakia U17 coach himself, he is one of the ambassadors for May's finals, mainly in his home city of Nitra where Italy will play Croatia, Ukraine and Russia in Group B. The 47-year-old spoke to UEFA.com about the opportunity the tournament gives Slovakia's squad, the welcome teams and fans can expect in Nitra, and the development of youth football in his country.
UEFA.com: How will Slovakia do, given it is rare for any of the nation's teams to play in youth finals?
Ľubomir Moravčík: I think the last time was 2002, when the U19s finished third and qualified for the [FIFA U-20] World Cup. This year it is a second chance for the 1996 generation, they have a unique opportunity. Six teams qualify for the World Cup, so it's a huge chance for the Slovak players to play in two wonderful competitions: the U17 European Championship and World Cup. You must win one group game and finish at least third in the group. I hope we have what it takes to achieve that.
UEFA.com: What can the young players learn from competing against other European teams at this level?
Moravčík: It is a good thing to be facing the best teams in this age group. It is a great opportunity to compete against the best. And it is an experience that can give them some ideas about what they need to do in order to get even better. If they need to work harder – and how they need to work harder – what are their weaknesses, what can be improved, what they need to do to be even better.
UEFA.com: You are an ambassador for your home town, Nitra. What kind of welcome can the fans expect?
Moravčík: I hope the weather will be good. Everything will be green, nature will be in bloom. Nitra is a historical town with a castle almost in the city centre.
UEFA.com: What does it mean to Slovakia to organise such a competition?
Moravčík: It is always good for a country like Slovakia to be recognised as a member of the football family, because it is a country that is not very well known, even in Europe. It is difficult sometimes to be Slovakian, because everyone mistakes it for the former Czechoslovakia. For Slovakia it is a nice showcase for the country. This is maybe not the biggest competition in Europe, but it is a competition you have to organise well. For young players this is the first step at a high level – they can compete against the best teams in Europe.
UEFA.com: You have coached at youth level in Slovakia. Have you seen any improvement since you stopped?
Moravčík: You can't really say there hasn't been much improvement, because the working conditions are a bit better now, but they are still not great in comparison with countries where football is more important than here. First of all we are competing with ice hockey. In countries like England, Italy, Germany or France, football is the number one sport, but in Slovakia football is at the same level [as ice hockey]. The conditions are not ideal but we are trying to improve. Especially in the winter you have artificial pitches, so it's good that we can work with the ball [in winter] – 20 years ago we didn't have that.
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