May 19 2013

European U17 Championship Review

Published by at 2:25 am under Uncategorized

Russia have won the European Under-17 Championship, hosted by Slovakia, beating Italy 5-4 on penalties in Friday’s final in Žilina. The shoot-out went to sudden-death and the hero was Russian goalkeeper Anton Mitriuškin, who not only saved three of the Italians’ spot-kicks but had been largely responsible for preserving the 0-0 scoreline during the 80 minutes of the game itself. One second-half save, from Luca Vido, an eye-catchingly skillful striker, was especially memorable.

Russia will have been glad of the penalty practice they gained in Tuesday’s semi-final with Sweden. That game too finished 0-0, the Swedes battling on well with 10 men following the 48th minute sending-off of Erdal Rakip. The shoot-out looked as if it might continue until well after midnight. It went on so long that Mitriuškin and the Swedish ‘keeper were required to take kicks. Both scored, and it was a miss by the unlucky Isak Sseswankambo that finally sealed Russia’s passage by a 10-9 scoreline.

In the other semi-final, earlier the same day, Slovakia’s adventure ended with a 2-0 defeat to the Italians. Part of the problem for the hosts here was the absence of defenders Andrej Kadlec and Denis Vavro through suspension. In the first-half especially, Italy kept cutting swathes through the Slovak backline and would have been three or four goals clear by half-time had it not been for some remarkable goalkeeping from Martin Junas. As it was, goals from Mario Pugliese and Elio Capradossi were enough. Slovakia were never short of heart, and produced a commendable second-half display that deserved at least a goal.

Still, winning their group was a fine success for the Slovaks. That they finished top and unbeaten, ahead of Austria and Switzerland, teams they’d lost to (convincingly in the Swiss case) last autumn, shows that they can absorb the lessons football teaches. A strong squad ethic was also key, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that crucial goals against both Austria and Switzerland were scored by Martin Slaninka, a player who didn’t actually start any of the games. In fact, the boy he generally replaced, Nicolas Špalek, was the one most likely to excite the crowd with his running and trickery.

The crowds at the tournament were good-natured and supportive. Slovakia’s first game, in Dubnica, was attended by over 4,000 and the clash with the Swiss drew a competition high of 8,300 to Žilina. Slovakia v Italy was watched by 7,000 and, although less than 1,000 stayed on for Russia v Sweden, the players of both of those teams were quick to signal their appreciation to the stands afterwards. During the game, the locals had divided themselves into two groups, characterised by their respective chants of ‘Rusko’ and ‘Švédsko’.

Among the 3,412 present at the final, was Michel Platini, who presented the trophy to the Russians. On arrival in Žilina, he had talked of the importance of giving smaller countries the experience of hosting tournaments such as this. Meanwhile, Jim Boyce, UEFA’s director of youth and amateur football, praised Slovakia’s organisation of the event, pointing to the first-rate training facilities and the fine quality of the pitches. He also pointed to the proximity ofŽilina’s ground to the Holiday Inn, the base for Group A and later for the semi-finallists and finallists.

I would hope this will be one legacy of the event ; the idea that Slovakia is capable of undertaking to host something which people enjoy and which doesn’t become embroiled in shame and scandal. After the fiasco of the Deaf Winter Olympics, that is much needed. Here, the hosts can’t be blamed for the one or two things that clearly weren’t quite right, such as the 2030 kick-off time for the Russia v Sweden game. That was presumably decided at the behest of Eurosport, but it did rather undermine the otherwise successful attempts to promote the matches amongst local schools and youth groups.

The Slovak players and coach now have plenty to look forward too. Finishing as one of the best six teams at this tournament means they will now contest the World Championships, to be held in the United Arab Emirates this autumn. But it is notoriously hard to predict which  individuals among a group of teenagers have the brightest long-term prospects ahead of them. Some of the squad are already with major clubs ; defender Atila Varga is with Juventus and midfielders Filip Lesniak and Tomáš Zázrivec are in England (with Tottenham and Aston Villa respectively). Vavro and Miroslav Kačer are two who have already tasted senior football – with Žilina. But if I was forced to choose one whose future I’d have confidence in, it would be captain Lukáš Haraslín. He combined strength and creativity in midfield and clearly has a leader’s personality. He is on the books of Slovan Bratislava, a club that tends to sign the best players of other Slovak clubs when a first-team position needs filling. If Haraslín can make it with them, it will be because they rate him exceptionally highly. Or perhaps another club will come in for him first.

Finally, a word for Ladislav Pecko, the Slovak coach. He has had a weird career trajectory, winning the Corgoň Liga with Slovan in 2009, getting the sack, coaching Prešov for a short spell, then fetching up with the under-17s. But he has been brilliant. He has successfully combined various personas ; disciplinarian (he confiscated the players‘ computers, smart phones etc ahead of the tournament), dispenser of avuncular reassurance, proud and excited father-figure. Tactically – witness his utilisation of Slaninka – he has been astute. His half-time talks seem to have worked, most obviously in the Switzerland game, when the team recovered from a first-half deficit, and against Italy. With men like this running the show, and there are more like Pecko out there, Slovak youth football is in very decent hands. That wasactually the case before this tournament came along. Hopefully, a few more people are aware of it now.

James Baxter

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “European U17 Championship Review”

  1.   Fat Eckon 23 May 2013 at 11:32 am

    Certainly more aware of it now, James – that’s a great portrait of Pecko and well done to the Slovak kids. I’ll look out for Lukáš Haraslín whenever I finally get to see Slovan in action.

    I like what you’re saying about the proper hosting of a tournament providing almost as much pride in a nation’s football as winning the thing. Particularly with the mention of the Holiday Inn. I still remember when Ibrox – a state-of-the-art, UEFA-approved stadium – was denied the Cup-Winners Cup final because there wasn’t enough hotel space in Glasgow due to a scheduled international conference of DENTISTRY!

    This was in the mid-90s but, by 2002, Hampden was hosting the Champions League final. While stadiums are the most obvious sign of a country’s ability to stage these tournaments, the entire infrastructure is often more pivotal in how FIFA and UEFA decide who’s hosting what.

    And by “Infrastructure” we, of course, mean how quickly the delegates can get a taxi from stadium to hotel to the night life :-)

    Well played, Slovakia and perhaps the success and benefits of the tournament will refocus minds on the benefit of a new, good-sized national stadium.

  2.   Jameson 24 May 2013 at 5:31 am

    Cheers Alex, didn’t know that about Ibrox. Very harsh that it never got another chance. I trust we’ve all gained from the dentists’ get-together in the meantime!

    The Holiday Inn in Zilina has done well out of football these last three years or so and it’s SO close to the ground that most visiting teams walk it. One exception was Chelsea – apparently the players wanted to walk but the security advisors insisted they get on the bus.

    Sadly, you may already be too late for Haraslin. A day or so after this went up, there was talk of him joining Parma, where Cerri, the Italy captain also plays.

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