Wednesday 03 May 2017, 10:54

European crown and World Cup berths on the line

  • 16 teams to fight for the U-17 European title from Wednesday 

** Five places at the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 on offer

** Tournament newcomers the smallest nation ever to participate

Venue: Croatia (3-19 May 2017). The games will take place in Zagreb and Rijeka.

Reigning champions: Portugal, who beat Spain on penalties in the 2016 final in Azerbaijan.

This year, however, Portugal will not be present to defend their title. They failed to progress from qualifying Group 3, a difficult pool that included Poland, Greece and Spain, ending up on four points and in second place behind the latter.

Format: There will be four groups of four, with the top two from each section reaching the quarter-finals for the knock-out phase of the tournament.

Group A: Croatia, Spain, Turkey, Italy Group B: Scotland, France, Hungary, Faroe Islands Group C: Germany, Republic of Ireland, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina Group D: Netherlands, England, Norway, Ukraine

Reasons to watch The level of technical and tactical play of the U-17 teams is remarkable and in this age category the players take huge steps forwards in terms of athleticism. Countless stars have participated at U-17 European Championships, including current household names such as Renato Sanches, Memphis Depay, Paul Pogba, Mario Gotze, Thiago Alcantara, Eden Hazard, Toni Kroos, Cesc Fabregas and Cristiano Ronaldo.

"Tournaments like this help you to develop and grow," said Sanches, who won UEFA EURO 2016 with Portugal last summer and now plays for Bayern Munich. "You shoulder a lot of responsibility. I only have positive memories when I think back on those moments."

World Cup dreams In odd-numbered years the U-17 continental competition doubles up as the qualifying campaign for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which will take place in India from 6-28 October.

The four semi-finalists automatically book their tickets to the global showdown. Of the four losing quarter-finalists the two best teams, which are determined according to detailed criteria, contest a play-off for the fifth and final European qualifying spot.

Newcomers and underdogs Norway and Faroe Islands will make their U-17 EURO tournament debuts. The latter – a nation with a population of approximately 50,000 – are competing at the finals of a UEFA competition for the very first time, having qualified as one of the best second-placed teams after Croatia.

"The Faroes are the smallest nation ever to have qualified for this tournament," said Christian Andreasen, president of the Faroe Islands Football Association. "It's a very talented group of players and we expect great things of them in the future."

The hosts Croatia traditionally have very technically gifted teams and in the current crop of players it is Dinamo Zagreb left-back David Colina who stands out. He is the most experienced member of the side and uses his pace and crossing ability to good effect on the wing.

Croatia played well in two friendlies against Spain in February, recording a 1-0 defeat and a 2-1 victory, kindling hope that on home turf they could improve upon reaching the semi-finals in 2005, which stands as the nation's best-ever finish at an U-17 tournament. Croatia were knocked out in the quarter-finals when they last took part in the competition in 2015.

"The players can demonstrate their quality and steer their careers in the right direction," said Croatia U-17 coach Dario Basic. "Some people might think that we're under extra pressure but we'll have the fans behind us and will be in familiar surroundings."

The favourites England, France, Spain and the Netherlands have all won the U-17 European title twice so far, and a third triumph for any of them would set a new record. That quartet are, naturally enough, among the favourites to lift the trophy this time.

For Spain, all eyes will be on captain Abel Ruiz, who laces his boots at Barcelona. He was also involved in 2016 when the Iberians lost to Portugal on penalties, and scored four goals at those finals to finish as the tournament's second-top scorer. This time the Spaniards will be hoping his firepower can lead them to glory.

Italy are also among the favourites, although they are yet conquer Europe in this age category. Among their squad is pacey Juventus forward Moise Kean, who even made his UEFA Champions League debut against Sevilla last November.

Germany, who were top scorers in qualifying with 19 goals, likewise have designs on the title. "We've got a lot of players who are good in front of goal, we've got good tacklers and a team structure that works," said U-17 coach Christian Wuck. "We can travel to Croatia full of confidence."