France reached the UEFA European Under-17 Championship semi-finals yesterday on a bittersweet afternoon for the players.
It was an impressive achievement to recover from losing 2-0 to Spain in their opener, as François Blaquart's side came from behind to beat Germany 2-1 and then held on to draw 2-2 with Ukraine on Monday, having led 2-0. But Mamadou Sakho, captaining France in Verviers, had his thoughts with their regular skipper Saïd Mehamha.
Thoughts with captain
"Reaching the semi-finals is a beautiful thing for the whole squad, as we have been together for two years," Sakho told uefa.com. "But our first thoughts go out to our captain Saïd, who first got injured, and last night he received the news that he had lost his grandmother, and that is why he had to leave the squad to travel back to Lyon. We dedicate this qualification to Saïd."
Paris Saint-Germain FC defender Sakho said team spirit had pulled them through: "We have become a real unit in those two years, we cry together and celebrate together. After losing the first match we were afraid we were were knocked out already, and now we have qualified. Those are all new experiences and we are relieved to be able to go on."
'Joy and relief'
Particularly as it so nearly slipped from their hands, as at the end either Ukraine could have grabbed a winner or Germany could have taken a lead against Spain that would have done for France. Only at the end did they know things had gone their way. Sakho said: "When we looked at the bench, and saw they were happy, we at last realised we were in the semi-finals, and there were feelings of joy and relief."
Now France travel west to the tournament headquarters in Nivelles, where they will stay alongside their semi-final opponents England. And Sakho is confident. "We know our own strength very well, and do not have to be afraid of anyone," he said. "Playing three matches in seven days is not something we are used to, and the players are tired, but we have two days to relax and travel to the new hotel and town.
We will be relaxed, but not too relaxed, as we also have to focus on the semi-finals."
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