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More junior joy?

Switzerland qualified for the under-21 finals without losing a match

(Keystone)

Junior football fever is set to grip Switzerland once again this Thursday as the under-21 European Championships kick off in Geneva, Lausanne, Basel and Zurich.

Last Friday, Switzerland stunned the footballing world by clinching the European under-17 title in Denmark, earning the Swiss their first ever international trophy at any level of the game.

Now Swiss under-21 coach Bernard Challandes is hoping his team can take inspiration from their even younger counterparts, although no-one is yet talking of a second European title.

Morale boost

"It clearly doesn't follow that we should we be able to win the under-21 tournament just because the under-17s did so well in Denmark," Challandes told swissinfo during training. "But we can certainly use their success for our own morale and mental preparations."

The exploits of the under-17s have also helped boost public interest in the under-21 tournament, with more than 100,000 tickets having already been snapped up. By Monday, Switzerland's own qualifying round matches against England, Portugal and Italy had accounted for 12,000, 10,000 and 25,000 tickets respectively.

Somewhat bizarrely, the failure of the Swiss senior team to reach the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea may have also helped to shift tickets with some of the country's supporters seeing the under-21 event as "Switzerland's World Cup."

"I hope we can all profit from the enthusiasm that's surrounding the championship," FC Zurich defender Stephan Keller told swissinfo. "The senior side haven't been doing so well, so it's up to us to jump into their place. But the under-17 team's success will certainly increase the pressure."

Strong opponents

Both Keller and his coach argued that the under-21s success, or otherwise, should be judged on the nature of their performances rather than their individual results against some of Europe's strongest youth teams.

All three of Switzerland's group stage opponents are seen as possible contenders to win the championship final in Basel on May 28.

Despite losing seven eligible players to the senior World Cup squad, England under-21 coach David Platt can call on a rich reserve of talented players.

Leeds United forward Alan Smith and Newcastle's recent SFr 12.5 million ($7.8 million) transfer Jermaine Jenas are both expected to cause the Swiss trouble on Friday.

Italy's under-21 coach Claudio Gentile, a former World Cup winner with Spain, has been forced to raid the country's less glamorous teams to complete his squad with foreign stars dominating many of Italy's top clubs.

AC Milan play-maker Andrea Pirlo will provide some star-status, however, and with four European titles in the last five years the Italian under-21 squad remain strong favourites for the trophy.

Injuries to Sporting Lisbon midfielder Quaresma and Paris St-Germain forward Hugo Leal have weakened the Portuguese squad slightly. But the presence of Champions League strikers Candido, Paulo Costa and Helder Postiga will add plenty of firepower to an already skilful side.

The Swiss have at least managed to avoid an early meeting with the talented French side, who have been picked out by several of their rivals as the main favourites for the under-21 title.

Raymond Domenech's team have been placed in group B, along with Greece, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

by Mark Ledsom with agencies


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