The UEFA European Under-17 Championship, won last week by Russia, has a dual purpose. It is an international competition with a prestigious prize, and a nursery for players hoping later to shine on the senior stage. This year's finals in Luxembourg illuminated the dilemma coaches have in balancing those two factors.
Welcomed back after their triumph by a parade from the airport to parliament, Russia may not have had the most individual flair but possessed a spirit second to none. In their opening match Hungary dominated but could not break through and Russia's 1.93m defender Sergey Morozov headed a late winner. The pattern had been set for the tournament, Russia's drive and athleticism allowing them to prevail from some tough positions.
Former international Igor Kolyvanov, still in his 30s, was appointed in his first coaching job to lead Russia's squad late in 2003 when they were an U15 selection. Along with experienced assistant Vadim Nikonov, Kolyvanov created a unit greater than the sum of its parts. "Winning moments are not just down to one player," Kolyvanov said. "
This team is united by a strong friendship; that is what we have spent three years trying to create." That was shown against Hungary, again when they held out against a dominant Germany to win their semi-final 1-0, and then in the decider when the Czech Republic twice equalised but Russia kept their heads to win on penalties, thanks to a save from superb goalkeeper Evgeni Pomazan.
That Russia and the Czechs were even in the final was a surprise to those who tipped Germany and Spain, both dominant in the group stage. Instead, after semi-final defeats, they had an entertaining encounter for third place, won by Spain on penalties. But perhaps it was Germany, although they were outfought by Russia in the last four, who had the most talent of all, including Manchester United FC goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler, tricky winger Marko Marin, intelligent playmaker Toni Kroos, and striker Manuel Fischer, whose 13 goals this season including qualifying was an U17 Championship record. Germany did not win the trophy, but that was not coach Bernd Stöber's sole aim. "The U17 Championship is serious but the individuality and creativity of young players needs to be developed, not only the physical aspect and tactical awareness," he said.
Two other coaches also put out squads of flair who ultimately fell to more cohesive units. Spain's Juan Santisteban has won the junior UEFA competition five times, but his selection was picked on talent and potential, not just with an eye to becoming champions. "I have good players as individuals, but they didn't play as a team," Santisteban said after the Czechs had deservedly beaten Spain 2-0 in the semi-finals. Still, they did strike 12 goals in the group stage, including a finals record seven against Luxembourg and a 3-0 win against Russia. And Spain had the most talked-about player, 15-year-old FC Barcelona forward Bojan Krkić. He claimed five goals, all as a substitute, to share the scorers' prize. Krkić was a thrill to watch run at defenders.
Hungary did not make it past their group, but József Both has compared his squad to the 'Magical Magyars', and it would not be a surprise if as many of his players make the step up as from any of the semi-finalists. They may have been punished for not taking their chances against Russia on Matchday 1, but Hungary's forward three - UC Sampdoria playmaker Vladimir Koman, the strong Ádám Dudás who Both hopes will also make a big foreign move, and top-class striker Krisztián Németh - could go a long way.
But Hungary did not get to stay for the second week and experience knockout football. The Czechs did. Coach Jakub Dovalil, just 32, had the only squad in Luxembourg with a physical maturity to match the Russians - four are already first-team regulars at their clubs. And they have talent, too, especially striker Tomáš Necid, who like Krkić and Fischer scored five times and seems to possess all the raw materials for a future star: he is quick, comfortable on the ball and scores important goals both beautiful and more prosaic.
Dovalil also showed himself to be tactically astute; with his half-time reshuffle in the opener against Serbia and Montenegro that transformed a dull, goalless game into an exciting 2-1 win, and then in the final. "We started at 4-4-2, when we went 1-0 down we went to 3-4-3, and we equalised so returned to 4-4-2," Dovalil said. "This is very good experience for the players." Of course his side finished second, and Russia showed the ability to overcome whichever obstacle was ahead of them. Many former stars of this competition like Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas did not play for teams that won the trophy. But Russia have a number of individuals with huge potential, notably Pomazan, and all 18 of their squad have an honour that few achieve: that of European champions.
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