Vibrant and accomplished hosts of this year's UEFA European Under-17 Championship off the pitch, Malta have held their own on the field too. Indeed they have made life difficult for each of their Group A rivals – England, the Netherlands and Turkey – despite falling to three consecutive defeats.
Always articulate and engaging, Malta's Argentinian-born coach Sergio Soldano – formerly involved at youth level with Serie A clubs Parma FC and FC Internazionale Milano – spoke to UEFA.com about how his young charges can benefit from taking part in this competition, and the path towards continuing to compete with Europe's finest.
UEFA.com: What has your squad gained from this campaign?
Sergio Soldano: These competitions are hugely beneficial to us. We take on teams and experience situations that are totally different to what we would usually encounter in Maltese football. The pace of the game is so much higher, the tactical quality is so much higher.
The more tournaments like this that we play, the more our football will grow.
UEFA.com: What are the main positives you can take from this competition?
Soldano: After the game versus the Netherlands, I spoke to the MFA directors and they told me it's been an awfully long time since they saw a Maltese youth national team create so many chances. What's more, we have five players born in 1998 and one in 1999 in this squad. I think there's a lot of potential in this group and in the U16 squad. Like I said to the FA president, I think in five years' time some of these lads could be performing for the senior side.
I'm also very pleased with the way the lads never let their heads drop and that, even when two or three goals down in games, we still kept trying to score. However, while we need to keep trying to score goals, we can't afford to let our guard down at the back at the same time. Like you saw against the Netherlands particularly, it can be a matter of seconds between us missing a chance and the opposition scoring.
UEFA.com: What needs to be done to ensure the momentum from this tournament isn't lost?
I've come to Malta for the long-term; football here won't stop once this competition stops. To keep making progress, these players need to keep playing more games at this level, so they can adapt to the demands of playing top teams.
There also needs to be constant contact between the FA and all the clubs, with a view to resolving certain problems that we face – particularly relating to levels of individual tactical discipline. When a youngster plays in Italy, for example, he'll learn how to play with four at the back, three at the back etc. Then, when he comes back to play for Malta, he's ready for whatever role his coach asks of him, whereas some of the lads here tell me: 'But I've never played there before' or 'that's not my position'.
UEFA.com: So, would you encourage your players to taste football in another country?
Soldano: To the lads already playing abroad and to any of them who get the chance to do so I always tell them: 'Seize the opportunity, learn as much as you can and then bring back everything you've learned with you when coming back to play for Malta.'
If we can get five or six of these lads playing regularly in a league that is stronger and more competitive than the Maltese league, they'll already be more complete players by the time they get to the senior team. We're really working a lot with the players to help them improve tactically and technically and I really hope more of them get the chance to go out and prove themselves in foreign football.
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