Exactly one month from today, the Netherlands under-17 and under-19 teams will start the elite round of their European championship qualifying campaigns. The two youth teams will endeavour to win a ticket to this year’s Under-17 EURO finals in the Republic of Ireland and the Under-19 EURO finals in Armenia.
The U-17s will play host to Northern Ireland, Israel and the Czech Republic. The Under-17 elite round involves 32 nations competing for 15 tickets to the 2019 finals. The Netherlands will be looking to finish as group winner or as one of the seven runners-up with the best records to join hosts the Republic of Ireland in the finals.
Eight nations will be participating in the Under-19 EURO finals in Armenia. Apart from the host nation, the seven elite round group winners will qualify. The Netherlands Under-19s will face Wales, Slovenia and Spain in March.
The managers of the two sides are keenly aware of the advantages of playing the elite rounds in their own country. "We have more opportunities to double-check everything and optimise our preparations,” says Under-19 coach Maarten Stekelenburg. His Under-17 counterpart, Peter van der Veen, agrees: "It's fun to play on home soil: almost no travel time, the food is good, the hotels are good. We are hoping that many people will come and watch us play."
The Netherlands U-17s were drawn against Northern Ireland, Israel and the Czech Republic. Van der Veen and his staff have already studied the opponents thoroughly. "We played Israel in September, so we are familiar with that team, who be defeated 4-2, even though it wasn’t our best game. Of course, we are also studying more recent images. Because the tournament is in the Netherlands, we will have plenty of opportunity to see the other teams in action when they play against each other."
The Oranje U-17s have set themselves clear targets, says Van der Veen. "Not only are they looking to proceed to the European Championship finals, they also want to lift the trophy. The group have a tremendous drive to match last year's performance at the finals, which they won. It's nice to see how hungry they are to achieve that success once again. We have gained a lot of confidence in the past few months, particularly from winning the Algarve Cup. But that’s no guarantee for the future."
"If we rise to the occasion and play at our best level, we can win from all three of our opponents", says Stekelenburg, referring to Wales, Slovenia and Spain. "We will do everything to be as strong as possible on the day and win this group." On 25 and 26 February, the team will meet up for an intensive two-day training session to prepare for the elite round.
In November, the Netherlands U-19s convincingly won a four-country tournament with Portugal, Germany and Armenia. "That resulted certainly boosted our confidence when it comes to the way we play and the development of our team. We will try to tie up all the loose ends in the coming period, to make sure that we are all set for the start of the elite round."