Few figures have contributed as much to Spanish football as Juan Santisteban. And after dedicating a life to the game, the venerable tactician is hoping to bid the fondest of farewells at Korea 2007.
Juan Santisteban's eventful story began on 8 December 1936, when he was born in Seville, not long after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Orphaned following the deaths of their parents in 1942, he and his sister were sent to a Madrid boarding school, the College of Orphans of the Civil Guard, a body to which his father belonged. Times were tough, and the only form of escape for young Juan was playing football, the sport that would ultimately change his life.
In 1952, the mighty Real Madrid visited the school one day and were dazzled by the youngster's precocious talent. It was then, as a callow 16-year-old, that he moved to what would become his second home, the so-called Casa Blanca. Within just two years he was making his top flight debut alongside greats such as Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, going on to win four league titles and four European Cups. Although he hung up his boots in 1964, he stayed with the Merengues to coach the club's youth teams.
After a fruitful 34-year association, Santisteban left Real Madrid in 1998 to take over as the Spanish FA's head of youth coaching. Since then he has led the national U-17 side to no fewer than six European titles and seven appearances in the FIFA U-17 World Cup. And this Saturday, the esteemed coach will be in charge for his 32nd game in the competition when Spain take on France in the quarter-finals.
FIFA.com: Senor Santisteban, what are your feelings at this
your seventh FIFA World Cup?
Juan Santisteban: I feel just the same satisfaction as I did when I took part in the first one. Football is my profession, my life, and competing in every one of those competitions has been very special.
When I mentioned the figure of 31 games you seemed a little
Well, I was to be honest. I'd never thought about it and I was amazed when you told me. That is a lot of games and it's more than likely my last game will be here. I just hope it will be the final in Seoul.
Why are you retiring?
The years catch up with you in the end. I'll be 71 soon and there comes a time when you get tired of all the travelling. We've been training together for nearly three months in Belgium, Austria and now Korea. Your family life suffers and it's hard on them.
What are you planning on doing when you retire?
That's a question I've asked myself lots of times. And the fact is I'm a little scared because football, like I said before, has been my life. I suppose I'll go to the Bernabeu and meet up with the club's veteran's association, chat to friends like Alfredo (Di Stefano) and (Jose Emilio) Santamaria. Believe me, I'm preparing myself for it. It's going to be tough.
You have coached many players, but who has impressed you
There have been so many it would be unfair to name just a few. But if you look at the current national team, there's a lot of them: Xavi Garcia, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Joaquin, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres.
There must also be one or two players who have failed to
fulfil their potential.
Well I wouldn't like to mention names here either, but there were lots of players who we felt had a great future ahead of them, but who unfortunately didn't make it. As for the reasons why, well, take your pick. In this game you have to be able to take on board all the advice you get from the people who really have your interests at heart.
What advice would you give to any youngsters hoping to
First I'd ask them if they felt they had the necessary quality. If they do, then the key is work, work and work. It's also a question of listening to your parents. They usually have the best of intentions and aren't motivated by money.
Do some of your former charges normally ring you for
Very, very occasionally. When a player turns professional they almost always develop an ego that stops that kind of thing from happening. If I bump into someone, then maybe, but they would hardly ever ring me just for that.
You have been a runner-up twice and finished third once.
The U-17 title still eludes you.
Yes, of course. I've been after the number one spot for so long. It's difficult though. Here in Korea, for example, you've got very strong teams like Argentina, Nigeria, Ghana, Germany, France, England, etc. It could happen here, but as well as considering your own team's strengths you also have to think about those of your rivals.
What are your thoughts on the game against France?
We know each other very well and we're pretty evenly matched. They are physically stronger than we are, but it's on the technical side of things that we can get the better of them.
Which of the 31 games do you remember most vividly and
The final against Brazil at Finland 2003. We had a great squad and we just couldn't put the ball in the back of the net that day. I remember sitting on the bench and struggling to believe that a Brazil side could play so unattractively. But well, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
One last question. How many of those 31 games would you
give to win the title here in Korea?
A lot! It's the one thing that's missing from my curriculum. Maybe God will see that I'm just about to pack this all up and decide to give me what I want this time.