England topped UEFA European Under-17 Championship elite round Group 4 in the Czech Republic, and there was plenty of drama off the pitch too.
Before the mini-tournament began last Wednesday, Albania midfielder Olger Merkaj – who had been hoping to make his debut against Italy, where he lives and plays for UC Sampdoria – instead found himself in hospital undergoing an emergency appendectomy. However, all four teams rallied round, as captains Jan Žárský (Czech Republic), Ryan Ledson (England), Federico Bonazzoli (Italy) and Keidi Bare (Albania) paid Merkaj a visit.
Merkaj, who recovered quickly enough to watch Albania's last game against the Czech Republic from the bench on Monday, said: "My stomach started to hurt after dinner the day before the first match. Our doctor gave me some medicine and I took a warm bath. It didn't help and in the middle of the night they rushed me to hospital. The next day I was operated on just after noon, when the other players were doing their warm-up for the first game.
"I was in the team for the first time. My parents left Albania when I was seven – that's why I play for Sampdoria. I didn't feel bad in hospital as the doctors and nurses took extremely good care of me. When the UEFA delegate [Jean Paul Mievis] arrived on Saturday with four players behind him I was really surprised. 'Era una bella sorpresa!' I was really very happy."
Skipper Bare added of his colleague: "It was super to visit Olger with the other captains. Our team-mate really had bad luck for his first appearance with the national team. In the end it is all about fair play and respect. I went to visit him in hospital, thinking I would be alone. Nobody told me the others were coming too. It was a big surprise for me and a boost for Olger."
FC Internazionale Milano forward Bonazzoli, who may one day be thrown into Serie A action against Merkaj, said: "It was an honour for me to be the player from the Italian team that went to see Olger. Only in the hospital, when the delegate was addressing Olger in Italian, did I realise we lived in the same country.
"We had never met before as Sampdoria and Inter don't play in the same division. It was nice to exchange some words in Italian. We compete on the pitch but are friends in sport. I hope he felt better after our visit and look forward to seeing him again in better circumstances, on the pitch"
Everton FC midfielder Ledson, now preparing to lead England in the Malta finals from 9 to 21 May, with the draw on 9 April, came bearing gifts. "Although we shared the hotel with the Albania team, I didn't know about their player's bad luck. In fact he was brought to hospital during the night. After the first game we heard he had been operated on in the local hospital.
"I was truly shocked and felt for the lad. Instead of playing the elite round, he was lying in a hospital bed, far from home. When our team manager told us we could pay him a visit, we immediately agreed. Even our coach came along. I gave him two team shirts, only a small consolation, because it must have been very hard for him."
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