Although his debut for Spain's U-17 side may have been overshadowed by Bojan Krkic's spectacular emergence, there is no way Fran Merida can be described as a supporting actor. Taking the same career path as Cesc Fabregas, the precocious youngster has already muscled his way on to the Arsenal first-team bench on a couple of occasions, and his gift for pulling the strings was a key ingredient in Spain's triumph at the recent UEFA U-17 European Championship. With one winners' medal safely in the bag, the next challenge on the horizon is the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007.
As he enjoys a precious break with his family before packing the video games and computer again ahead of pre-season training for club and country, the rising star spoke to FIFA.com about an exciting phase in a career that promises so much.
A mere five-year-old when he started playing for a local side in Hospitalet de Llobregat, on the outskirts of Barcelona, he was snapped up by the Camp Nou club three years later. His progress as a teenager soon had the scouts taking notes and when the call came from England, Fran did not think twice. "Arsenal made me a really good offer and after my first year there I'm very happy with the choice I made," he tells FIFA.com without a trace of doubt in his voice.
Not unusually for a 16-year-old leaving his hometown, family and friends behind, there has been the occasional bout of homesickness. "I miss the sun a lot too," he adds wistfully, aware of the need to make the most of the trips he makes home every six weeks or so.
As a Spaniard in London, he has almost inevitably been compared
with team-mate Cesc Fabregas, which is hardly surprising when you
consider that as well as switching Barcelona for north London, they
both have their similarities on the pitch. A powerful attacking
midfielder who favours his left foot but is equally adept with his
right, Merida is never afraid to shoot from distance.
The youngster is keen to make a distinction, however. "I get compared to Cesc a lot, but as I've already said lots of times, we're different. He's already played in a World Cup and a Champions League final, and I'm just a kid who's learning the game. I hope I can achieve what he has, but for now I'm taking it step by step," he explains calmly.
There is little doubt he is on the right track, having already picked up an U-17 European Championship winners' medal, an accolade that eluded his more illustrious compatriot. Next stop for Merida is Korea, where he will attempt to outdo his club team-mate again by lifting the world title that escaped the clutches of Fabregas and company at Finland 2003 following defeat to Brazil in the final.
Doing it for Spain
"Spain are going to Korea to win. That said, we do respect our rivals and if they've got this far, it's for a reason," he says, sounding a note of caution. If they are to make progress in the Far East, the European champions must first find a way past Argentina, Honduras and Syria in Group C.
"We have to go out and show why we're European champions. The World Cup is never easy, though, and we need to take things game by game. As a team, you are always looking to improve, and even more so when you have players as young as we are. The coach will be analysing the mistakes we made at the European Championship, and we'll be working on that when we meet up before travelling to Korea."
A fan of Zinedine Zidane and Deco, Fran is convinced that the spirit and togetherness the team showed in Belgium was the key to their defeat of England in the final: "We were very solid at the back, but the most important thing is that we all played for the team. Both Juan Santisteban and Gines Melendez (Spain's U-17 team coaches) have lots of experience in the world of football and they've always told us that we have to be a team, that we'll never win anything if we play for ourselves."
As Fran points out, such a well-grounded philosophy means
everyone in the squad is on an equal footing: "Training camps
can be a bit long and boring at times but there's a really good
atmosphere in the squad."
If there one man attracting more attention than most, it is Krkic, the scorer of Spain's winner in the U-17 European Championship final. Fran is happy to see Barça's boy wonder hog the limelight, though: "What can I say about Bojan? I've known him since he was eight. He's a fantastic player and he deserves all the success he's having right now. I'm delighted for him and if they give him the time to develop, he'll go on to be a star because he's got bags of talent."
His family holidays about to come to an end, Fran will soon head back to London, Arsenal and his English classes. It will not be long, though, before thoughts turn to August and the exciting challenge lying in wait on the other side of the world.