After their surprise absence from the 2005 edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru, La Selección will be back at the elite event in 2007 bearing the mantle of European champions. Armed with a talented group of hard-working and focused young players, coach Juan Santisteban is determined to lead his players to the world title, thus consigning the disappointment of Spain's two previous runners-up spots to history.
Leading from the front should be lethal forward Bojan Krkic, the outrageously gifted FC Barcelona youngster, aided and abetted by the exquisite vision of Fran Merida in midfield. Another product of the Azulgranas youth set-up, Merida has followed in the footsteps of fellow Barça graduate Cesc Fabregas by making the move to North London giants Arsenal. Providing a constant outlet on the left flank for Santisteban's compact and highly technical side is marauding winger Iago Falque, while the safe hands of keeper David de Gea instil confidence throughout the back four and beyond. Fresh from winning their seventh European title at this age level (previously Under-16) Spain have set their sights on their first U-17 world crown.
In the event, Spain sealed victory in the final of May's UEFA U-17 European Championship by the narrowest of margins, Bojan Krkic driving powerfully home after a parry from the English keeper. The young Culé had already played a decisive role in La Selección' hard-fought semi-final success over Belgium. Trailing 1-0 after an unfortunate own goal, Krkic levelled the game with less than 20 minutes to go, arrowing a wickedly dipping long-range effort into the top corner of the host nation's net. With the score still level after 90 minutes and extra time, it would be the Spaniards who eventually won out on penalty kicks.
Prior to that dramatic last-four showdown, Santisteban's boys had cruised through the group phase with relative ease, ensuring their involvement at Korea 2007 by finishing first in Group A. The seven points garnered from wins over France and Ukraine, 2-0 and 3-1 respectively, plus the 0-0 draw with a powerful German outfit were enough to guarantee top spot.
It is hard to imagine anybody knowing more about the depth of potential talent in Spanish football than Juan Santisteban. Since starting out with the Spanish Football Association (RFEF) in 1988, Santisteban has mainly been involved with eking out the best from Spain's top youngsters, particularly at U-16 and U-17 level. Now 70 years of age, he has forged a reputation as one of the finest youth coaches around.
Prior to devoting his considerable energies to developing promising young stars, Santisteban wore the Real Madrid shirt with distinction, winning four European Cups and four league titles in a golden period for the Merengues . The Seville-born player also enjoyed a loan spell in Italian football with Venezia, and had a brief stint at hometown club Real Betis before winding up his playing career in Baltimore in the United States. In addition, Santisteban won seven caps for Spain's senior side.
The experienced tactician first made the move into coaching in 1970 within Real Madrid's youth system, before eventually joining the RFEF, where he works alongside celebrated youth coaches Gines Melendez and Inaki Saez. Between them the trio have helped establish Spain as a leading force in world youth football.
There can be no doubt that the player whose star currently shines brightest is that of FC Barcelona youngster Bojan Krkic, whose Serbian father and namesake played up front for Red Star and OFK Belgrade. In April, at the tender of age of just 16 years and five months, the instinctive goal-getter scored on his debut for the Barça first team in a friendly against Egyptian side Al Ahly.
Despite failing to unleash his full goal-scoring potential during the recent UEFA U-17 European Championship, his two-goal contribution had a vital impact on Spain's final two matches.
Lest anybody question the young Spaniard's eye for goal, his record with the Azulgrana underage sides should dispel any doubts. Since starting with them in 1999, Krkic has broken scoring records at every step, firing more than 600 goals thus far at an average of over three a game.
Armed with a fiercely powerful shot, Krkic also catches the eye thanks to his delicate control and innate ability to conjure openings for himself and others. Blessed with an indefatigable fighting spirit, which inspires those around him, Korea 2007 could well be the setting for Bojan Krkic's explosion onto the world football scene.
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