"Reaching the finals would be a historic accomplishment," Ioannis Okkas tells UEFA.com as Cyprus's most-capped player aims to coach the Under-17s to the European showcase in May.
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Cyprus Under-17 coach Ioannis Okkas says he and his players "are staying grounded" as he aims to become the first man to lead a team from the island nation to UEFA final tournament qualification in 27 years.
Former striker Okkas – who won a record 106 Cyprus caps and enjoyed trophy success both in his homeland and in Greece with Olympiacos, AEK Athens and PAOK – is now seeking to make more history. Although Cyprus played in the 1998 UEFA European U18 Championship and the 1992 U16 EURO as hosts, the last time they actually qualified was for the 1990 U16s, beating Greece home and away to reach East Germany.
However, in the last few years the Cyprus Football Association (KOP/CFA) has made sweeping changes to the national youth set-up, and they appear to be paying off. Okkas's squad got through their U17 EURO qualifying round, and from Wednesday they will host elite round Group 8 in a bid to reach May's finals in Croatia. As further encouragement, the Cypriot U19s have also advanced to the second stage of their competition.
Okkas himself is considered a vital cog in the machine. "Reaching the elite round is an achievement in itself because we clinched wins against respectable opponents like Belgium and Belarus," the 40-year-old told UEFA.com.
"But reaching the finals would be a historic accomplishment. We are hopeful we can do it. We are confident we can beat the sides in our group but we are also staying grounded. We are Cyprus, we have never qualified and we are not in a position to get ahead of ourselves."
Nevertheless, he added: "We are a small nation but we have talented players. We need to ensure these talented players are properly looked after and nurtured. But we cannot allow ourselves to get in a position to be boastful."
With the island's clubs – in particular APOEL – having contested the group phase of UEFA competitions on a number of occasions, the onus is now on the national selections to land a place on the big stage. In Paphos, Cyprus will entertain the Republic of Ireland, Slovakia and the Faroe Islands, conscious that not only the group winners but also the best seven runners-up will progress to Croatia.
"I can understand why some people would say we are in a favourable group, given we avoided some of the big guns in the draw and we are at home," Okkas said.
"We beat Belgium and Belarus and so – for some people – it stands to reason that we will beat Ireland, Slovakia and the Faroes. But things don't work like that in football.
"Despite winning all our games in the qualifying group, we are still Cyprus and not the favourites by reputation. We need to stay disciplined and work even harder to achieve the dream of reaching a major finals.
"Qualifying would be the best way to showcase the progress of the Cypriot national teams. The standard of Cypriot coaching has also improved a lot and that is testament to all the hard work being done by everyone. Being present at a major tournament would definitely lay down a benchmark for future Cyprus sides."