As every football fan knows, any team with designs on glory needs a solid backbone. And the first key element in the spine of a successful side is the goalkeeper. Get a reliable pair of hands between the posts and you are well on the way to grabbing some silverware.
The Spain side currently battling hard at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 can certainly vouch for that. Without David de Gea's magnificent display against France in the quarter-finals, their tournament hopes would surely have been over. And yet, such has been De Gea's impact in the Far East, that it would be unfair just to focus on a sublime 120 minutes against the French or his subsequent penalty shootout heroics.
Who could forget, for example, his leaping save in the final minutes of the group game against Syria? That vital intervention kept the scores tied at 1-1 and was the prelude to Dani Aquino's precious winner in his side's next attack, a goal that ensured the Iberians' place in the next round. "That's what being a keeper is all about," Spain's undisputed first choice explains to FIFA.com. "Sometimes it's just a case of stopping the ball, lots of times in fact. You always need to be alert, though. You never know when you're going to be called into action."
Naturally, exhibitions like the one he produced against Les Bleuets do not happen every day. "Almost everything came off for me, but the important thing is that the team is in the semis," he says disarmingly. The match statistics reveal that he made 11 saves in all, including the decisive penalty stop. His save count for the tournament is now up to 23, an average of 4.6 per game, figures that go a long way to explaining why the Spanish, along with Ghana, have the tightest defence in the competition, conceding only five goals in five games to date.
Away from the spotlight
On the pitch De Gea goes about his work in a composed, unspectacular way; flashy dives for the cameras are just not his style. And off it he is much the same, choosing his words carefully and evading the cameras if possible. "I get a bit embarrassed to be honest," says the giant but nevertheless shy stopper. "I wouldn't swap my position for any other. I got into goalkeeping through my father, who played as keeper for Getafe, and even today he's still giving me tips that only someone who has played there before can give," adds the Atletico Madrid shotstopper, a faithful devotee of heavy metal music and his mother's Spanish omelettes.
As David admits, he had a sleepless night on Saturday, replaying all his the moves from the France game in his mind. "I wasn't just thinking about my saves either. There were my mistakes too, because you always make a few. I'm a real perfectionist. I tend to be quite critical about my performance if there's something I don't get right."
Despite his remarkable likeness to the Dutch custodian Edwin Van der Sar, De Gea is an ardent admirer of the skills of compatriots Iker Casillas and Andres Palop, not to mention Italy's Gianluigi Buffon: "They make hard saves look easy," he adds.
The proof of the pudding
It is more than likely that De Gea will need to pull a few more saves out of the hat in Wednesday's semi-final against Ghana. "It's going to be very tough, just like the France game. We need to move the ball around and avoid making silly mistakes at the back, because with the strikers we've got I'm sure we'll get a goal or two"
Given De Gea's penchant for saving spot-kicks, the Africans would be well advised to get the job done in normal time. As well as denying the French at the weekend, the Spanish stopper also saved a penalty against hosts Belgium in the UEFA European U-17 Championship, a stop that took his side into the final, where they lifted the trophy after beating England. "I wouldn't say I'm a specialist," he answers when the question is put to him. "I just look at the position the taker is in and decide to go to one side or the other. A well-taken penalty is always a goal, though. You always need a bit of luck." Luck is something the wearer of the No13 shirt obviously enjoys plenty of.
Shy and retiring he may be, but De Gea sounds an optimistic note as he bids FIFA.com goodbye. "Knocking out France showed us that we can win even the hardest of games. After coming through that I reckon we've got every chance of going on to win the trophy."