What we learned from the Women’s Under-17 Euros in Sweden

<span>Celia Segura and Amaya García Gómez celebrate after <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Spain;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Spain</a> became the European Women's Under-17 champions.</span><span>Photograph: Tyler Miller/Sportsfile/Uefa/Getty Images</span>

When Celia Segura scores her second goal of the final, she runs to the bench to pick up a cuddly toy, which she puts on her head and smiles as the team rejoices around her. It’s for her teammate, Silvia Cristóbal, who got injured in the semi-final of the tournament. To cheer her up Segura promised to celebrate her goal with the octopus, Cristóbal’s favourite animal.

Eight nations arrived in a sunny Malmö and Lund in Sweden to play the U-17 Euros, with three spots at the U-17 World Cup in the Dominican Republic up for grabs. The tournament, featuring a group stage, semi-finals and a final, plays a crucial role in providing international experience. Star players such as Aitana Bonmatí and Leah Williamson honed their skills in this competition, and young talent like Lena Oberdorf and Vicky López, individually recognised with the ‘Player of the Tournament’ award, have gone on to already excel at the senior level.

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Germany have long been a powerhouse at the youth level but they failed to qualify for this tournament. Spain’s talent has been brewing in the background for some time, with the emergence of great players starting over a decade ago, however, it’s only more recently that the silverware is beginning to pile up. The collective spirit has been a key to Spain’s success, and Segura’s octopus celebration is indicative of the playful togetherness of the squad. “We’ve spent a lot of time together, we get along very well as a group […] I don’t know how to explain it because I have never experienced this!” says an exasperated Segura, clasping the gold medal around her neck after their 4-0 win against England in the final.

One of the most eye-catching takeaways from the tournament was the technical ability of individual players and the speed and movement of the teams, illustrated by the high-scoring games. This performance not only captivated audiences but also highlighted the importance of coaching input. Spain’s manager, Kenio Gonzalo, lauded his players for their ability to adopt and adapt to the gameplan, and for “playing like Spain” with a lot of ball control. This indeed seems to be a successful recipe, considering that Spain are currently the World Cup holders at U-17, U-20 and senior levels.

The combination of collective power and individual brilliance was best illustrated by their top scorers, Alba Cerrato, who was named player of the tournament, and Segura. The duo scored 12 goals between them over five games. When Segura was asked whether the two compete for the most amount of goals in the national team, she barely had time to dismiss the idea before Cerrato chimed in: “We’re roommates.” The two attackers finished each other’s sentences much like they finish each other’s passes on the pitch, but Spain do not have to only rely on these two for goals, with a wealth of creative attacking players on their hands such as Ainoa Gómez and Lua Calo.

It is reassuring to see how the popularity of women’s football continues to increase. Broadcasters such as BBC Sport and the Swedish state television were showing the games and the Sweden-England game attracted a record-breaking crowd as 2,380 people turned up to watch the game in Lund, an attendance record for a girls’ youth international game in Sweden. For the Swedish team, getting to play on home soil made it extra special. “It’s a dream come true, firstly to play a championship but then also to get to lead your country out here in front of this crowd,” said the Sweden captain, Alice Broman. “It’s incredibly powerful and a great source of pride.”

Despite having contributed to Sweden’s 5-1 loss, England’s hat-trick hero Isabella Fisher was a popular figure and young fans swarmed around the striker asking for a picture. England have experienced a noticeable boost off the back of hosting the Euros in 2022, and Yvonne Ekroth, former head of Sweden’s U-23/elite section, underlined the importance of hosting a championship: “We’ve seen at senior level how it increases interest.”

On a sporting level, things were tougher for Sweden, who lost all three group games. A decade ago, Sweden beat the likes of Spain in the youth set-up, but that reality feels far removed now. Ekroth was also the coach of the Swedish side that beat Spain in the semi-final of the U-17 Euros in 2013. It was a tough game: “I was impressed by the team I remember, it was not the way we were used to playing […] but the collective really bought into it,” Ekroth reflected. “To keep tight, not give up any space.” The game went to penalties where Sweden’s goalkeeper Emma Holmgren saved a penalty, before scoring the winning one herself.

“Not just anyone steps up at that moment to take a penalty, which you have to respect … I remember I screamed to Emma Holmgren: ‘You take the next one,’” Ekroth said. “She just went up and scored. That was awesome.“ Although the final against Poland ended in a defeat, it proved to be a valuable experience for the U-19 Euros in 2015, which Holmgren and her teammates managed to win against none other than Spain in the final.

Sweden have not won a medal at youth level since. Observing Spain’s success, Ekroth noted a background characterised by less gender segregation at an early age and points out that Sweden, known for their solid player development, needs to strike a balance between access and competitiveness. The Swedish Football Federation has analysed the current competition structure for girls and women aged between 13 and 23, and is looking to make changes to the set-up, including potentially allowing girls’ teams to join boys’ leagues. Getting challenged at the senior level is also important. Holmgren pointed out that she, alongside many of her teammates in that Euro-winning squad, was playing regular senior football at an early age. “That’s made me the player that I am,” she said.

There could only be one winner at the end but these players will have left the tournament with a host of experiences and memorable moments. So will the fans, who got to see quality football from exciting talent up close. Spain’s playful attitude poses a serious challenge, and it’s up to everyone else to step up to it.

Players to watch

Alba Cerrato: Scored 17 goals across Spain’s 11-game Euros campaign and her sharpness and composure in front of goal is exceptional, often needing only one touch to put the ball into the net. Plays for Sevilla in the Spanish top division, where she got minutes last season.

Ambre Ouazar: She was the key in the French midfield, with her lightning-quick movement with the ball at her feet and a penchant for intelligent play. Featured once last season for Lyon’s senior team.

Oliwia Zwiazek: Technically skilled and with an eye for goal, Zwiazek was one of the top players for a Poland that impressed with their physicality and never-say-die attitude.

Lola Brown: When the rapid English winger is not scoring goals herself, she’s quick to set her teammates up for one. A product of the Chelsea academy and with a bright future ahead.

Felicia Schröder: Top scorer for Sweden who works just as hard in the defence, at national as well as senior club level for Häcken. After the Euros, she made the move up to Sweden’s U-23 team where she has already been scoring.

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