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Malta plans for unique event

"Success for us is participation itself," said Jesmond Abela, manager of the Malta Football Association technical centre, as the countdown to the U17 finals there continues.

Malta's Argentinian coach Sergio Soldano with his squad
Malta's Argentinian coach Sergio Soldano with his squad ©Domenic Aquilina

Four months from today a UEFA trophy will be lifted for the first time in Malta – but for the host nation "success for us is participation itself".

The UEFA European Under-17 Championship will be played in Malta from 9–21 May, in its last staging as an eight-team final tournament before it doubles in size for 2014/15. Not only are these the first UEFA finals Malta will have hosted; the event will also mark the debut for any of their national teams at such a level of competition.

Of course, following Portugal's 2003 side, the 2004 France squad and Germany's 2009 selection in winning the U17 title on home soil may be beyond the Mediterranean island nation, as Jesmond Abela – manager of the Malta Football Association (MFA) technical centre – admits. "We are lowest ranked and have to be realistic," he told UEFA.com.

"We will try our best and give it a go; we will try at least not to get humiliated. We will present a challenge to everyone. Success for us is participation itself, and giving a good account of ourselves."

In preparing for the championship in recent months, Malta have traded 4-0 wins with Northern Ireland, lost by the same scoreline in Wales before a 3-2 victory, and last month were defeated 7-0 in Italy before a 3-3 draw against Catania Calcio. "It is a one-off event and the team are preparing as much as they can," Abela said. "They come from school directly to train every day, they are trying to be as professional as possible. They are at least trying to reduce the gap between us and the big teams."

Malta next go to Rome for a tournament from 23 February before their seven finals opponents are decided in the competition's elite round in late March. Whoever qualifies, the MFA hopes for big crowds come May.

"We are meeting with clubs and various bodies so we can prepare correctly and promote the tournament as much as we can," Abela said. "We are meeting all the schools involved to promote the games because of the early kick-off times.

"Although we seem at the lowest grade, football is very popular in Malta. We have a big tradition of football going back more than 100 years – it is our main sport. It was a nice present from UEFA to award us this tournament."