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.
With the UEFA European Under-17 Championship in full swing, UEFA.com attended a training session for the competition's refereeing team in Malta, gaining valuable insights from UEFA refereeing officer Marc Batta and match officials Aliyar Aghayev and Alexander Harkam.
"Up-and-coming referees nowadays all need to be in great physical condition and have a very complete footballing knowledge," said Batta during the session at the Mellieha Sports Club. "At this tournament we have young referees, because the policy is to have young referees for youth tournaments, with a view to the future. The youngest [Aghayev] is 27; the oldest [Harkam] is 31 – they're all here to improve their knowledge and gain experience, as are the assistant referees."
Echoing his thoughts was Aghayev, from Azerbaijan, who has been thoroughly enjoying life at his first final tournament: "It's only my second year on the FIFA list, so getting this appointment was a bit of a surprise for me, but a very nice one. The atmosphere has been really great and working with [observers] Adrian [Casha], Marc [Batta], Kyros [Vassaras] and Leif [Lindberg], both in the debriefs after the matches and during coaching sessions, has been a real learning experience."
Austrian referee Harkam, for his part, chose to highlight the importance of the observers' pre-tournament meetings with all the participating teams. "The observers spoke to all the players in their hotel before the tournament to make sure everybody was on the same page, showing video examples of what will be a red-card offence, a yellow card, and what will be seen as simulation or a reckless challenge, for example. The players and coaching staff have been very well-informed and it's definitely made our job easier."
More straightforward, perhaps, though the profession itself remains extremely demanding, hence the extensive work that Batta and his colleagues devote to developing their young charges. "After each match, each team of officials have a debrief with a referee observer. Then, the day after, we have a collective debrief to work on the positive points of their performance, which is vital for making sure the referees trust in themselves. It's a two-hour session with work on areas that might need improvement.
"All the referees here are very young, but we're hoping they can use the experience from this tournament to make the step up to another level," continued Marseille-born Batta, who officiated at EURO '96 and the 1998 FIFA World Cup. "A very good example is that, in 2006, Björn Kuipers refereed the final of this tournament and now, in around ten days' time, he will referee the Champions League final.
"Just as I'm sure that a few players from each of these teams will appear in the Europa League or Champions League in four or five years, I'm sure many of the referees here today will be doing the same."
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