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Okkas seeking to lead Cyprus U17s to glory

Cyprus under-17 boss Yiannis Okkas says he and his players “are staying grounded” as he aims to lead the national team to a historical place at the Under-17 European Championships this summer in Croatia.

Cyprus get their Elite Round campaign underway at the Kouklia Stadium in Paphos on Wednesday against Slovakia. The other teams in the group are Ireland and the Faroe Islands. The game kicks-off at 3.15pm and can be viewed by live stream here.

Former striker Okkas – who is Cyprus’ most capped player (106) and who 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.

In the last few years, the CFA has overhauled coaching and training regimes within the national youth teams and legendary striker Okkas has been seen as a vital cog in the machine. “Reaching the Elite Round is an accomplishment in itself because we clinched wins over respectable opponents like Belgium and Belarus,” Okkas told UEFA.com.

“But reaching the finals would be a historic accomplishment. We are hopeful that we can do it. We are confident that we can beat the opponents in our group but we are also staying grounded. We are Cyprus, we have never qualified before and we are not in a position to get ahead of ourselves.”

He added: “We are a small nation but we have talented players. We need to ensure that those talented players are properly looked after and nurtured. But we cannot allow ourselves to get into a position to be boastful.”

With many of the island’s clubs – and in particular APOEL – having reached the group stages of UEFA competitions on a number of occasions, the onus fell on the national side to also land a place on a big stage.

In the last few years, the Cyprus Football Association (CFA) made some sweeping changes to alter the national youth set-up and it appears the reforms are paying off. Both Okkas’ under-17s as well as the Cyprus under-19s succeeding in qualifying for the Elite Round of their respective UEFA European Championships.

In the previous qualifying round, the Cyprus U17s defeated Belarus (1-0), Belgium (1-0) and Gibraltar (2-0).

“I can understand why some people would say that we are in a favourable group given that we avoided some of the big guns in the draw and the fact that we are at home. We beat Belgium and Belarus and so – in some people’s eyes – it stands to reason that we will beat Ireland, Slovakia and the Faroe Islands. But things don’t work like that in football.”

He continued: “The flipside to that argument is that despite winning all of our games in the previous group, we mustn’t forget that we are still Cyprus and not the favourites by reputation. We need to stay grounded, disciplined and to work even harder than before to achieve the dream of reaching a major final.”

Despite his calls for calm, there is an unspoken optimism around the Cyprus squad leading up to the opening games in Paphos.

After all, Cyprus could even finish as one of the best seven runners-up and still qualify.

“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 that is being done by everyone. Being present at a major tournament would definitely lay down the benchmark for future Cyprus national teams.”

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