"It was a tremendous experience for all of us – we have learned so much," Bulgaria coach Aleksandar Dimitrov told UEFA.com after the hosts failed to make the quarter-finals.
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Bulgaria signed off from the 2015 UEFA European Under-17 Championship with a 1-1 draw against Austria on Tuesday in Sozopol. That they finished bottom of Group A with one point to their name, though, has done little to quell the optimism pervading Aleksandar Dimitrov's squad.
Dimitrov has mixed emotions about the hosts' debut U17 finals campaign, which opened with losses to Croatia (2-0) and Spain (2-1). The most important thing for him, however, are the positives he and his players can extract from their involvement in the competition's first 16-nation tournament since 2002.
"These finals are fantastic and a well-organised event," he told UEFA.com. "It was a tremendous experience for all of us. We have learned so much. There are so many top teams here. At previous final tournaments I have seen a rapid development. Until recently, teams had just one or two influential players and it was enough to close them down and get a result.
"Now it is completely different. Every team has a lot of players who are capable of influencing games. That makes things harder for a side like ours. The small details are so important now; the leading teams are paying so much attention to them and that makes the difference between the best and the rest."
In spite of the early exit, PFC CSKA Sofia graduate Dimitov is hopeful for the future of the squad. "One of the major problems for us was the lack of qualifying games – we played only friendlies. We definitely lacked the competitive edge and sharpness. That was quite visible in the opening game against Croatia, when there was a lot of pressure on us, but we improved with each game.
"Of course, we could have earned more points, but the key thing is that the players have learned a lot and now know what such tournaments are about," continued Dimitrov, who led Bulgaria's U19 squad to the continental finals in Hungary last summer. "Now they must concentrate on developing their game and improving their standard. They should start working even harder. They saw the best players with their own eyes and now it us up to them as they have the talent."
Creative presence Georgi Rusev echoed Dimitrov's sentiments. "The game against Austria was the best because there was no pressure on us and we managed to find our rhythm and style," he said. "Unfortunately, that was not the case in the first match, particularly in the first half against Croatia, and we left the thousands of fans disappointed."
Still, the occasion has been one the FC DIT Sofia attacking midfielder will never forget. "I was born in Stara Zagora and that made the opening game against Croatia even more special for me. There were almost 11,000 fans at Beroe Stadium. I cannot hide my delight and pride. I was so touched by the reception and I want to thank all the fans who came to support us.
"Being part of this event, playing against such strong teams, will only motivate me and my team-mates. Of course, there is a difference between us and the best sides here, but we know we have to work. We must be more confident and believe in our ability; the coaches tell us this all the time. If we manage to do that, we could get there – to be among the best teams in Europe."