He comes across as unprepossessing, modest and even a touch shy, but an explosive transformation takes place once Iker Muniain gets the ball at his feet. The young wide player has been an electrifying presence for Spain at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009. An unpredictable genius with the football, the Athletic Bilbao gem is one of the better known of the rough diamonds thrilling the crowds in Nigeria, as he already has a place of his own in the history books.
Just weeks ahead of the tournament showcasing the stars of tomorrow, and with his promising career still in its infancy, Muniain shot to fame in his home country. At the age of just 16 years and 289 days, he scored in La Liga for the Basque club, becoming the Spanish top flight's all-time youngest scorer. The Pamplona-born starlet is understandably confident as he spearheads his country's drive to claim the world title in west Africa.
"We've reached the semi-finals against Nigeria, we're proud of that, and we're confident we can take the next step and make it to the final," Muniain declared when he spoke to FIFA.com in the lobby of the team hotel.
He and his team-mates held their nerve in a dramatic penalty shoot-out against Uruguay last time out, leaving the player in both a satisfied and determined frame of mind. "Let there be no mistake: we want to be world champions - and we've got what it takes too!"
Of all coach Gines Melendez' technically able squad, Muniain rates as the most experienced. After all, he has achieved something the vast majority of his team-mates still harbour as a dream: an outing in the Spanish top flight, widely considered one of the best leagues in the world. He has become reverently known as the Basque Messi, but there is no evidence the star treatment has gone to his head: "It's true I've had a taste of it already, but that doesn't make me any more important than any of the other leading players. The team has huge potential, and each of us contributes equally to its progress. That's our recipe for success."
First among equals
Indeed, the Spanish are definitively not a one-man show. The youngsters' assurance on the ball and fluid short-passing game, strongly reminiscent of the current European senior champions and their world-class stars Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres and David Villa, has seen them comfortably outplay all their opponents to date at the U-17 finals in Nigeria. Their style is their trademark, and it has swept all before it so far.
Spain is now undefeated in 12 matches at the FIFA U-17 World Cup finals. Muniain has made his contribution to that remarkable series, but as he himself puts it, he is but one stone in a carefully pieced-together mosaic. Alongside brilliant playmaker and midfield general Isco, the prodigiously gifted and lightning-quick Pablo Sarabia and burly striker Borja, the Bilbao youngster's dynamic movement and ability to switch wings at the drop of a hat is the equivalent of a sixth gear attached to a powerful and very smooth-running Spanish motor.
A discernible hunger for more characterises Muniain's approach in the build-up to Thursday's semi-final, when the Spanish face hosts Nigeria in Lagos. Nigeria it was who beat the Iberians on penalties to claim the trophy in Korea two years ago. "We're going to take revenge, because in the Uruguay game, we picked up exactly the vital experience you need to develop a winning mentality at a tournament. We had to overcome a setback, we shook ourselves awake, and we went on to win. This experience has brought us even closer together as a team."
The Nigeria clash would also be the perfect time for Muniain to hit peak form. The tournament has been OK for him personally so far, he confided to FIFA.com, but no more than that. "I can do better. And I reckon the semi-final, and then hopefully the final, would be the right time for that!"
The Bilbao prodigy is now hoping to follow up his stunning arrival on the La Liga scene with another entry in the history books, this time in junior national colours. The stage is perfectly set for Thursday's re-run of the last FIFA U-17 World Cup final.