Few were surprised to see Raul Albiol get the call when Spain coach Luis Aragones named his squad for the crucial UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier against Denmark earlier this month. Given his assured performances over the last two seasons it was merely a question of when, rather than if, he would see international action. And so confident was the veteran tactician in the composed centre-half's abilities that he even handed him a place in the starting eleven.
Naturally enough, the Valencia defender struggled to conceal his pride at fulfilling a long-cherished ambition. "This is a dream come true for me," said an emotional Albiol. "To play for your country is the biggest thing a Spanish player can aspire to and I'm so happy to have achieved this on such an important occasion." Back home, his parents shed a tear or two as their boy made his debut and were so overcome with the emotion of it all they completely forgot to record the match for him.
For any young player a first international cap is a special moment, but Albiol has more reasons than most to celebrate - the call up recognising his exceptional talent as well as the courage showed in battling back from a near-fatal accident three years ago.
The game of his life
It was on a hot August afternoon in 2004 that Albiol, a member of Spain's UEFA U-19 European Championship-winning side and one of Valencia's most promising youngsters, was travelling to Madrid with his father and agent to sign a loan agreement with Getafe.
Just a few kilometres from their destination, however, they were involved in a crash that left the youngster in a serious condition in intensive care. Thankfully, after undergoing two operations and having his spleen removed, Albiol made a speedy recovery, even finding the strength to sign the contract with the Madrid club in his hospital bed. Coached at the time by current Valencia boss Quique Sanchez Flores, Getafe would have no reason to regret the gamble they took on the young player. "Thanks to God I was able to recover from a very difficult situation, and funnily enough absolutely everything has gone my way since then," he recalls.
After quickly regaining full fitness, the hero of the hour was back in training by December and went on to make 17 Liga and two Copa del Rey appearances for the newly promoted side that season, even managing to score a goal along the way. His fine performances earned him a ticket to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, where Spain's run was halted by a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina in the quarter-finals.
The superb form he showed after such adversity did not go unnoticed by his beloved hometown club. With Sanchez Flores newly installed in the Valencia hotseat, Albiol made his way back to the Mestalla, playing 29 league and four cup games in 2005/06.
By the following season he was a permanent fixture in the Ché back-line, missing only two Liga games in the whole campaign and turning out 14 times in the UEFA Champions League before Chelsea put paid to Valencia's hopes in the last eight. And as Albiol acknowledges, playing alongside Roberto Ayala did his career development no harm whatsoever. "Ayala is one of the best central defenders in the world, and having him at my side for two seasons helped me a lot. I felt very comfortable and I got so much out of it."
With the legendary Argentinian coaxing him along, Albiol was able to polish his considerable defensive skills. Comfortable on the ball, with a fine positional sense and an innate ability to time his tackles, the tall Albiol is also a commanding presence in the air and poses a considerable threat to opposing defences at set-pieces.
Still only 22, few players are as deserving of success as the hardworking, exceptionally dedicated Albiol. But whatever his achievements in an already eventful career, the self-effacing Valencia star is determined to follow his parents' example and keep his feet on the ground.
As he himself says, he still has many things to learn, but with his Valencia contract running until 2011, the polished defender is set to continue his education at the very highest level. And now that Luis Aragones has joined the ever-growing list of Albiol's admirers, all the indications are that one of the next stages in his schooling will come next summer at UEFA EURO 2008.