There seems to be little that can halt the inexorable advance of Spanish soccer at the moment. The senior team holds the World Cup and European Championship titles; the under-21 side triumphed at the recent European Championships, and was joined on Sunday by the victorious women's under-17s, which retained its own continental crown. At press time, Spain's under-19 team was playing the Czech Republic in Romania for the European Championship and on Sunday, in Colombia, the under-20s thrashed Costa Rica 4-1 in the opening match of its World Cup.
The class of 1999, which steamrollered Japan in the final in Nigeria, included current World Cup-winners Iker Casillas (who was reserve goalkeeper behind Dani Aranzubia), Xavi Hernández and Carlos Marchena and was coached by Iñaki Sáez. The current crop of Spain youngsters contains players already established in La Liga ? Sergio Canales (on loan at Valencia), Isco, Recio (both Málaga), Koke (Atlético) and Jordi Amat (Espanyol), as well as half of Barcelona B, which finished third in Segunda División last season. Coach Julen Lopetegui, former goalkeeping coach to the senior team under his mentor Sáez, also has some international league experience at his disposal in Dani Pacheco (Liverpool) and Rodrigo (Bolton Wanderers). In all, 14 of Spain's 21-player squad have debuted in top-flight competition.
"The objective is to be faithful to our style of play and emulate a little the soccer that the senior team displays in the world," says Lopetegui from Spain's base in Manizales, where it will also play Ecuador and Australia.
"This idea, where each player knows where and how to play, is what makes the squad so strong," adds Sáez, who was invited to Colombia three months ago to give a series of conferences and took the opportunity to scope out the pitches, a few opposition teams and the nation's cities.
So far, the team is operating smoothly; the Costa Rica win was delivered in a comfortable and efficient manner, with two goals from Rodrigo, one from Koke and one from Isco. If Spain beats Ecuador on Wednesday, it will qualify for the knock-out rounds with a match to spare.
"We do not feel like favorites," said Lopetegui. "The day-to-day will dictate how far we will go, but we are very hopeful and we want to be major figures [at the tournament]."
In order to achieve that goal, Spain will have to perform better than potent rivals Brazil, Argentina, England, Nigeria and the host, Colombia, which dealt out a humbling 4-1 defeat to reigning European champion France in its opening match in Group A.
But being in the limelight is nothing new to Spain's players. England, for example, is missing two dozen players that could have easily made the squad, but were held back by either their clubs or their own lack of desire to play in the junior national teams, preferring to seek leading roles in the senior squad ahead of next year's European Championship in Poland-Ukraine. Canales, who has perhaps been guilty of having his head turned by the hype of his transfer to Real Madrid - and was subsequently body-slammed back to earth by an unimpressed José Mourinho - reported for duty without a peep.
"All this effervescence has come because the clubs as much as the Federation have lost the fear that the players must be in teams from the top tier," says Sáez. The spine of the under-20s is that of Barça B. "The style [of play] is marked by the players," Sáez continues. "To discard the soccer of Xavi, Iniesta, Fàbregas and Busquets [in the senior team] would be madness. Something similar is occurring in the national youth sides."