The UEFA European Under-19 Championship is proving to be special in many ways for Austria forward Sinan Bytyqi.
Not only is he fulfilling a dream by representing his country in a major tournament, but on Friday he will bid farewell to a close friend and rival for a day, Portugal's Marcos Lopes. The pair have spent the past two years developing together in Manchester City FC's youth team, but the Portuguese playmaker departs this summer for a loan spell at LOSC Lille.
"It's going to be a special moment for me," Bytyqi told UEFA.com. "He's going out on loan so I'm not going to see him now for a year and he's one of my best friends. We're going to enjoy the last game against each other, although hopefully we can meet again in the final."
Austria's eyes are already on that potential appointment on 31 July. Both they and Portugal have booked their places in Monday's semi-finals with two wins and Friday's contest will just determine the final positions in Group A. "We are more focused on the semi-finals than this game as we know it's going to be hard no matter who we play," Bytyqi said. "We're focusing on Monday, but we still go into this game with our same mentality. We'll try to win it as that would give us even more confidence."
That is one element certainly not lacking in the Austria camp, thanks also to the support they have been receiving from back home. "It means a lot to us," Bytyqi said. "
People from Austria are coming out to watch us and lots of journalists are here too so we see it means something for the country as well. It's one of the best moments in my life to be here, and to have started so well is unbelievable."
'The Austrian people are behind us'
Another special moment was an invite from the Austrian embassy in Budapest, proud to host the team and delegation for an evening reception on Tuesday. "It was fantastic to see the embassy and to be invited there was an amazing experience," added the 19-year-old. "It means a lot to see that the Austrian people are behind us. Some first-team players have been posting on social networks that they are following us too and that means a lot to us."
Not only in Austria are people keeping tabs on Bytyqi's progress. "The best moment was when Patrick [Vieira – Manchester City youth team coach] called. He told me that the first game is always the most important of a tournament and he wished me and all the team the best of luck. I've been texting [Edin] Džeko as well, and the City assistant coach. I hope they'll be watching me."
If they do watch, they will see an Austria team growing in confidence and belief by the game. That, according to Bytyqi, is the result of concerted efforts to create and enhance an efficient collective ethos. "Our priority is the team," he explained. "Maybe we didn't do that in the first years when we were more selfish, but now we've changed tactics and are playing as a team.
"Austria is not the biggest country and it wasn't really expected we'd come so far. When you think that the likes of the Netherlands, France and Italy all didn't make it here, and Austria did – and now in the semi-finals – of course it's great for us. Just think – we're three games away from the title, and we'll give it all we've got."
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