All is calm at Spain's training camp in Kano. Fresh from qualifying with ease from the group stage of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, La Roja are resting up ahead of their next engagement, a round-of-16 tie with Burkina Faso at the Sani Abacha Stadium on Thursday.
But as FIFA.com discovered on a visit to the Spanish camp, while the players regain their energy levels, Gines Melendez and his coaching staff are busy preparing for the meeting with the Stallions, poring over statistics and putting together training and video sessions. On top of all that they are also keeping a close eye on the USA-UAE match on the television. "We've been eating, sleeping and breathing football these last few days," says Melendez, breaking away momentarily from his research. "When we're not training or playing we're watching one of the games at the tournament."
The footballing boffin has been handing on his extensive knowledge to Spain's young talents since taking over the U-16 side in 2002. In his seven years of national service he has coached some of the finest players the country has ever produced, among them Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique, Bojan Krkic and Fran Merida.
"Spanish football has been in wonderful shape for the last few years and as well as being European champions, we are also playing the best football on the continent," says the learned tactician, who has worked alongside youth coaches of the calibre of Jose Ufarte, Inaki Saez and Juan Santisteban since first taking a seat on the bench at the FIFA U-20 World Cup UAE 2003. "The national team's success isn't just down to one man. There's an entire technical team involved," he explains. "We take the credit when things go right, and the responsibility when things go wrong."
The mastermind behind several European titles, Melendez has also guided the U-17s to runners-up slots at Finland 2003 and Korea 2007, and the U-20s to second place at UAE 2003. And though a world crown still eludes him, he knows very well that silverware is not the only measure of success. "Winning championships is great but our objective here is to train players," he says, explaining Spain's blueprint for achievement. "The Spanish FA ask us to work closely with the clubs in developing young footballers and the whole aim is to ensure the full national team is successful. Ten of the 11 players who started the final at Euro 2008 had played for Spain at youth level. That's the success of the national youth teams.
"Competing in international tournaments allows young players to step up a level, something they can't do in national competitions," he continues. "If three or four of the players here in Nigeria go on to become first-choice players for the national side, then we will have done our job."
Step by step
Melendez has been working with the current group of players since 2007, with the assistance of fellow national youth coach Aitor Karanka, the former Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao player. And as their regal progress through the group phase shows, the Spanish youngsters are benefiting from all the experienced strategist's hard work.
"We are providing them with the resources so that they can go as far as possible," he comments. "The important thing is that the team keeps playing well and stays faithful to its style by keeping possession for long periods and playing the ball out from defence. It's a good squad of players and after playing together virtually non-stop for two years they know each other very well and are all good friends."
Spain's outstanding performers so far have been Pablo Sarabia, Borja Gonzalez, Adria Carmona and Isco, the quartet excelling in consecutive wins over USA, UAE and Malawi. Yet as Melendez acknowledges, Burkina Faso will present a stiff test for his side.
"They are a very strong and quick team and I'm sure the artificial pitch in Kano will suit them down to the ground. We have a great deal of respect for them but we have the weapons to stop them, provided we don't make mistakes. If we play our own game, then we have a great chance and come what may on Thursday, we can hold our heads up high. Anything can happen in a knockout match but if we give our all we'll be able to take pride in our performance."
Yet, judging by his attention to detail and devotion to the cause, the scholarly Melendez will be hoping to take more than pride away with him come the final whistle in Kano.