For a relatively small country, Switzerland have an outstanding record at Under-17 level.
They won the 2002 UEFA European U17 Championship in Denmark and seven years later triumphed at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup, beating hosts Nigeria in the final. On Friday in Malta they begin their seventh European U17 finals campaign; only England, France, Spain and the Netherlands have qualified more. At the helm will be Yves Débonnaire, who has led his troops to five out of eight final tournaments since his first attempt at the 1999 U16s. He spoke to UEFA.com about their chances.
UEFA.com: Be honest – when you were drawn against holders Russia and superpower Spain in the elite round of qualifying, were you concerned?
Yves Débonnaire: No, the draw was good. It was a perfect draw – great teams – and it was a super mini-tournament.
UEFA.com: But how optimistic were you about making the finals?
Débonnaire: Well, in a tournament you always have a chance. That's why we do this job. Sure, it was not easy – Russia were reigning European champions, though that was last year's group, and of course we know Spain play great football. Our players showed the right mentality, they fought well and against these teams you always need a little bit of luck. Then suddenly we scored the goal against Spain [in Switzerland's decisive final game].
UEFA.com: How have the players profited from their difficult qualifying campaign?
Débonnaire: There is always a development. The first [qualifying round] mini-tournament was difficult, the second one even more, now the finals will be yet more difficult. And there is always a development in the team, a step forward.
UEFA.com: Switzerland is quite a small country. How exactly are you producing strong youth teams over and over again?
Débonnaire: We might be a small country, but we have several possibilities. Sometimes a small country is an advantage. The distance between clubs and special training sessions sponsored by the FA is smaller. We can train with the players more often, which is very interesting for us. I can watch all my players within a radius of 200km – that is a nice advantage
In 1995 we created new structures, good structures, and we can see the results in the U17s, sometimes the U19s and the U21s. Our young players play in senior sides quite early. We now have to add consistency to our performances.
UEFA.com: In 2002 Switzerland won the UEFA European U17 Championship and in 2009 the FIFA U-17 World Cup. How was that possible and does that help in motivating later generations?
Débonnaire: We tend to have some strong teams in the U17 bracket, though sometimes we don't. The 2009 group were a very good vintage, but it was also a very strong performance by their coach Dany Ryser, who went along a perfect road with that age group. Sometimes these things just come together and you have a result. Sometimes age groups don't even qualify, because you don't have the same level of players.
We try to achieve consistency in our performances. But those were two very good results for our football, which always results in a good feeling for those age groups and other teams as well. It was outstanding.
UEFA.com: Is there a typical Swiss way or idea of playing?
Débonnaire: Well, we can't play like Spain. We always want to have a clear shape to our play, we want to defend with a good mentality. But sometimes you have an age group that allows you to outplay the opposition, sometimes you don't. The players at your disposal shape part of your philosophy. Do we have players who are good on the ball, or good in the zone? Well, we always want to have possession. But also that's nothing new, nothing special, as we try to adapt to current trends in world football.
UEFA.com: What do you make of your group stage opponents Germany, Portugal and Scotland?
Débonnaire: Portugal and Germany we have seen on video. Two very good teams with big wins to their name. Both teams boast great individual players. Portugal are very active, they have a lot of movement in their side. Germany, of course, always have a strong team with lots of power and energy.
We have played Scotland twice. Some might think of old-style British football, but that's not the case. They play very good football, want to keep the ball and react very aggressively when they lose it. For us, this is a great challenge for the group to learn things. For me, this is the most important thing. Players always want results and so do I. But even more important is the experience they gain, especially individually. That is more important than results to me.
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