The UEFA European Under-17 Championship consists of three distinct stages: the qualifying round, the elite round and the final tournament. The format changed for 2014/15 with the expansion of the final tournament from eight to 16 teams.
The qualifying round, played in autumn, is made up of 13 groups of four countries playing in one-venue mini-tournaments. The top two from each pool progress alongside the five third-placed sides with the best record against the leading pair in their groups.
In the elite round, held in early spring, those 31 qualifiers plus the top seed – given a bye this far – compete in eight mini-tournament groups of four. The group winners and seven runners-up with the best record against the teams first and third in their section advance to the finals to join the hosts.
In the final tournament the contenders are split into four groups of four, with the front two from each proceeding to the knockout phase.
Further details, including the criteria for separating sides that finish level on points in a group, or after 80 minutes in a match, can be found in the official competition regulations.
Cyprus Under-17 coach Ioannis Okkas says he and his players "are staying grounded" as he aims to become the first man to lead a team from the island nation to UEFA final tournament qualification in 27 years.
Former striker Okkas – who won a record 106 Cyprus caps and enjoyed trophy success both in his homeland and in Greece with Olympiacos, AEK Athens and PAOK – is now seeking to make more history. Although Cyprus played in the 1998 UEFA European U18 Championship and the 1992 U16 EURO as hosts, the last time they actually qualified was for the 1990 U16s, beating Greece home and away to reach East Germany.
However, in the last few years the Cyprus Football Association (KOP/CFA) has made sweeping changes to the national youth set-up, and they appear to be paying off. Okkas's squad got through their U17 EURO qualifying round, and from Wednesday they will host elite round Group 8 in a bid to reach May's finals in Croatia. As further encouragement, the Cypriot U19s have also advanced to the second stage of their competition.
Okkas himself is considered a vital cog in the machine. "Reaching the elite round is an achievement in itself because we clinched wins against respectable opponents like Belgium and Belarus," the 40-year-old told UEFA.com.
"But reaching the finals would be a historic accomplishment. We are hopeful we can do it. We are confident we can beat the sides in our group but we are also staying grounded. We are Cyprus, we have never qualified and we are not in a position to get ahead of ourselves."
Nevertheless, he added: "We are a small nation but we have talented players. We need to ensure these talented players are properly looked after and nurtured. But we cannot allow ourselves to get in a position to be boastful."
With the island's clubs – in particular APOEL – having contested the group phase of UEFA competitions on a number of occasions, the onus is now on the national selections to land a place on the big stage. In Paphos, Cyprus will entertain the Republic of Ireland, Slovakia and the Faroe Islands, conscious that not only the group winners but also the best seven runners-up will progress to Croatia.
"I can understand why some people would say we are in a favourable group, given we avoided some of the big guns in the draw and we are at home," Okkas said.
"We beat Belgium and Belarus and so – for some people – it stands to reason that we will beat Ireland, Slovakia and the Faroes. But things don't work like that in football.
"Despite winning all our games in the qualifying group, we are still Cyprus and not the favourites by reputation. We need to stay disciplined and work even harder to achieve the dream of reaching a major finals.
"Qualifying would be the best way to showcase the progress of the Cypriot national teams. The standard of Cypriot coaching has also improved a lot and that is testament to all the hard work being done by everyone. Being present at a major tournament would definitely lay down a benchmark for future Cyprus sides."
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