Fifteen teams travelled to Bulgaria with a common aim: that of claiming one of Europe's six berths at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The first step towards achieving that goal was to occupy one of the top two places in the four groups which provided the opening stage of the first 16-team final tournament since 2002.
The other team, Bulgaria, had to contend with the challenge endemic to host nations – to produce top-level performances despite the lack of competitive matches in qualifying. The lack of edge became patent during an opening fixture when, in spite of fervent, numerous support, they were second-best to an impressive Croatia. Aleksandar Dimitrov's side improved game by game, fighting manfully back from a goal down against Spain and capitalising on a rare goalkeeping error to equalise – only to be defeated by a well-rehearsed set play. The hosts, playing variations on 4-3-3, produced another plucky display, again coming from a goal down to earn their only point from a 1-1 draw with Austria.
The result represented a disappointment for the compact, well-organised Austria team. In their opening game, they had responded to Spain's possession play with direct counterattacking and came from 1-0 down to draw 1-1. They displayed similar solidity against Croatia, with Manfred Zsak bravely switching to three at the back for the closing minutes after his side had fallen a goal behind. Needing to win the final match against an improving Bulgaria, they surrendered a 1-0 lead and failed to strike enough sparks in the attacking third to achieve their goal. With Croatia defending deep and rotating their squad against Spain with a view to protecting first place in Group A, the 0-0 draw signified an early exit for Austria and the hosts.
In Group B, the Czech Republic had a rough ride, despite taking maximum points from their opening game against Slovenia. Václav Cerný's team worked hard and pressed aggressively, but their only reward was a solitary goal just after the break. Cerný attributed a nervy showing to big-tournament pressure, which was only relieved by the goal. The second match, against Belgium, was marked by two critical moments: firstly a missed penalty when trailing 1-0; and, minutes later, the dismissal of goalkeeper Martin Jedlička. Two subsequent goals gave Belgium a 3-0 win. Worse was to come in the final fixture against Germany, who scored three in the first half and sent the Czechs home with a 4-0 scoreline.
Germany had somehow survived a torrid first half against Belgium, when their clean sheet owed much to woodwork, goalkeeping and profligate finishing. But two long-range strikes – the first deflected – allowed them to open the campaign with a 2-0 win. Slovenia, after their opening defeat, opted for deep defending and direct counterattacking, which failed to disturb the Germans once they had taken an eighth-minute lead. The second 1-0 defeat left Igor Benedejcic’s team needing to beat Belgium by three goals. But an edgy game ended cruelly for Slovenia when Belgium striker Dennis Van Vaerenbergh headed the only goal in the third minute of added time. Slovenia and the Czechs were the Group B fallers.
In Group C, Scotland were required to bounce back from a dispiriting start. Starting in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Scot Gemmill's side conceded four times during the first half against France. Switching to 4-4-2 after the break, they limited the damage to a further goal. Against Greece, determination and committed pressing in midfield sparked an improvement but, after falling behind in the 39th minute, they could find no way through resolute Greek defending. Already eliminated, they were defeated 2-0 by a Russia team which came within a whisker of joining the Scots on the journey out of Bulgaria.
After an entertaining opener in which they twice came from behind to draw 2-2, Mikhail Galaktionov's team focused on defensive aspects against France but were beaten by a solitary strike from Odsonne Edouard. France, already qualified, rotated their squad for the final match against Greece, who defended in depth with a view to securing the 0-0 draw that would push them into the last eight. That objective was scuppered in the cruellest of fashions. A lapse of concentration allowed substitute Jordan Rambaud to poke the ball into the Greek net in the fourth minute of added time and to send the Greeks home.
Group D pitted Italy and the Republic of Ireland against the 2014 finalists, England and the Netherlands. Tom Mohan's Irish team sprang the first surprise of the tournament by holding the Dutch to a 0-0 draw in a game which, had they taken their late chances, they could have won. Two defensive mishaps then led to a 2-0 defeat by Italy which left them needing to beat England. Ireland's commitment, spirit and organisation made them difficult to break down, but they were beaten by a solitary goal and were one of three teams to travel home without scoring.
Failure to ruffle the net was the reason for the Dutch's unexpected demise. After a rocky first half which required Maarten Stekelenburg to make hurried tactical adjustments, they came back via a penalty to draw 1-1 with England and, in the must-win final fixture against Italy, they could manage no more than an own goal which gave them another 1-1 draw and sent them home unbeaten. Italy, despite an indifferent start against John Peacock’s talented England side, were through to the last eight.
Their opponents were the France team which had yet to concede a goal – and Bruno Tedino's side were unable to change that. Playing a classic 4-4-2 based on defensive acumen and direct supply from the back to the frontrunners, they struggled to cope with the fluent movement of Jean-Claude Giuntini's team and the incessant attacking along the flanks. Edouard opened the door with an early goal and sealed the 3-0 win eight minutes from time after winger Nanitamo Ikone had scored a second in the 53rd minute.
It gave France a semi-final against Belgium. Bob Browaeys, in the quarter-final against Croatia, stuck to his 4-3-3 formation with the emphasis on breaking forward along the flanks. Dario Bašić preferred a 4-2-3-1 with positional rotations and spells of high pressing. An impressive first half earned Croatia a 1-0 lead. This persuaded Belgium to open up what had been a risk-management game and a 53rd-minute equaliser by lively winger Ismail Azzaoui sent the tie into a shoot-out. Jens Teunckens, impressive throughout the tournament, saved the first Croatia penalty and this was enough to give Belgium a 5-3 win.
On the same day, Germany took on Spain in Stara Zagora and struggled to find solutions to the possession play and high defending by Santi Denia's team. Spain, prompted by captain and playmaker Carles Aleñà, had the better of the first half, forcing Constantin Frommann to work hard to extend his unbeaten run. But Spain were to pay for their lack of punch (one penalty and two free-kicks in the tournament) and, when two of their spot kicks failed to hit the net during the shoot-out, they were beaten 4-2.
The other quarter-final was also a story of paying for a lack of goals. England had the upper hand in terms of technique and approach play against a Russia team that moved up a gear in relation to previous performances. England's fluent combinations in midfield and the advances in the wide areas – with Chris Willock rampant on the left – faded on the edge of the Russian box and, although England dominated by 20 attempts to six, Aleksandr Maksimenko was rarely troubled in the Russia goal. His crucial contribution was to save a first-half penalty and inject enough confidence for his team to push forward and score the only goal of the game in the 29th minute.
England and Spain then underscored their scoring problem by playing out a goalless draw in the World Cup play-off, with Spain again enjoying the upper hand but failing to translate this into activity for the scoreboard operator. Again, they were cruelly beaten in the penalty shoot-out and went home unbeaten, but, on the other hand, having posted three 0-0 draws in their five matches. In the other play-off, skipper Nikola Moro atoned for his shoot-out miss by scoring the 15th-minute goal which earned Croatia the consolation of a trip to Chile.
Russia, after the defend-and-counter strategy had paid off so handsomely against England, adopted the same approach to their semi-final against Germany – a battle between two teams who relied on collective virtues rather than individual talents. Captain Georgi Makhatadze again emerged as the midfield leader and the main link between the Russia lines. Germany, ringing the changes in terms of team selection but remaining faithful to the 4-2-3-1 structure, attacked insistently down the flanks and were rewarded when tall striker Janni Serra headed the 68th-minute goal which put Christian Wück's side into the final.
Their opponents were France – just. In Burgas, Giuntini's team tested Belgium relentlessly with their high-tempo, short-passing game – and, in particular, keeper Teunckens, who plunged to his left to keep out a penalty taken by Edouard. The France striker, however, put his side ahead in the 23rd minute with a direct free-kick which clipped the post on the way into the net. After the break, pushing up and pressing high, Belgium exploited another set play to draw level, the head of centre-back Rubin Seigers emphatically meeting a corner from the left to end Luca Zidane's unbeaten run of 372 minutes. The 1-1 draw signalled the start of a bizarre shoot-out in which, after Edouard's earlier failure, only three of ten spot-kicks hit the net. The tenth, struck by Edouard, beat Teunckens to give France a 2-1 shoot-out triumph and the right to return to Burgas three days later to take on Germany in the final.