Blood thicker than water for Spanish promise Castro
Spain or Germany? At the tender age of just 16, promising young midfielder Gonzalo Castro has already had to make a decision which will go a long way to shaping his career as a professional. Both nations have been falling over themselves to persuade him to defend their colours on the international stage. Proving that blood is thicker than water, Spain have won the day.
The son of southern Spanish immigrants in Leverkusen, Gonzalo speaks the language of his parents with the same pronounced twang, but the accent also reveals his German upbringing.
"My parents went there to look for work when they were just 20 years old, but we visit Spain a lot, especially in summer. Football commitments permitting, I like to come and see my family," he tells FIFA.com. "I have Spanish blood, my family is Spanish and so is my passport. I'm all Spanish, so that's why I want to play for Spain."
Castro looks slightly self-conscious as he mingles with his team-mates from the Spanish U-19 squad, perhaps a little overwhelmed by the expectation that he is generating among Madrid's sporting press. And the fact is that things are happening very quickly indeed for this young hopeful. Gonzalo made his Bundesliga debut with Bayer Leverkusen against Hannover, which was swiftly followed by his first 20 minutes of Champions League football.
"They were both very happy moments. Not many players can say that they've done that at 16. Against Hannover, my mind was really on the game so I didn't feel nervous. In the Champions League against Liverpool, everything happened so quickly. And anyway, at 3-1 down there wasn't a lot pressure on me. I just had to go out there and see some of the ball," he explains unassumingly.
A passion for football runs in the Castro family. His father was already a keen amateur player before leaving Spain and he passed that enthusiasm on to his son. At four, Gonzalo began playing with Bayer Wuppertal and at 12 he signed for Bayer Leverkusen - where he has just renewed his contract.
The young defensive midfielder, whose idols he says are Xavi from FC Barcelona and Liverpool's Xabi Alonso, has received lavish praise from his coach, Klaus Augenthaler.
"The boss gives me a lot of confidence and I'm grateful for the time he gives me on the pitch. He has faith in the young players and though we've only played because three first team regulars are out through injury, he tries to give the youngsters a go and that's really important to us," he says. Curiously, it was Augenthaler himself who encouraged him to choose Spain over Germany.
However, his club side are not at the top of their game right now. Trailing the Bundesliga leaders by 10 points and knocked out of the Champions League, Bayer Leverkusen are languishing in something of a trough.
"Going out of the Champions League was a tough blow. We were disappointed because we thought that we could make it to the quarter-finals at least. But that's life and that's football. Anyway, our sights are now set on winning the next few league games so that we can get in the running for a European place next season," he says, his confidence clearly not dented by the setbacks.
Castro successfully manages to combine his studies with training sessions, but will now have to find time to attend the calls of Spain's youth team coaches too. On his first visit to the players' hotel at the Spanish FA's Football City on the outskirts of Madrid, Gonzalo says that he feels at home and very happy.
"You can see a difference in the style of play. German football is much tougher, you have a lot less time on the ball. Here in Spain, it's more about knocking it about," he says after his first session under coach Ginés Meléndez. "He's a very calm and friendly man, and he has bags of experience."
Castro's international call-ups coincide with a year in which two FIFA World Championships are to be played: the World Youth Championship in the Netherlands and the U-17 Championship in Peru. The young promise has already presented his credentials. "I'd be absolutely thrilled to get the nod," he concludes.