Spain are set to start the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 as one of the favourites after their eye-catching performances in the European qualifying tournament. Proving themselves to be a well-balanced side with a penchant for neat, short-passing football, the Spanish stayed undefeated en route to the continental title by virtue of their mature and disciplined team performances.
With Gerard Piqué marshalling the defence, Juan Manuel Mata and Mario Suárez orchestrating midfield, Diego Capel and Jeffren Suárez providing width and penetration on the flanks, and talented goalscorer Alberto Bueno wreaking havoc up front, the side had all the weaponry needed to perpetuate Spain's proud record in youth and junior football.
Spain booked their place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup by winning the UEFA European U-19 Championship in Poland in June 2006. Without losing a single game, and scoring an impressive 17 goals, Ginés Meléndez's young side underlined their superiority by playing by far the best football of the competition.
Spain made their intentions clear right from the outset by hitting nine goals in their opening two group games: a hard-fought but hugely-entertaining 5-3 win over Turkey, followed by an emphatic 4-0 demolition of Scotland. With a semi-final berth and a place at Canada 2007 in the bag, what was effectively the second team managed a respectable 1-1 draw with Portugal. Ginés Meléndez's side then swept past semi-final opponents Austria 5-0 to set up a rematch with Scotland in the final. Having learnt lessons from the group stage encounter, the Scots worked tirelessly to close their opponents down, a strategy that caused more than a few headaches for the somewhat nervous Iberians. In the end, however, striker Alberto Bueno found a way through the Scottish defence, pouncing twice to fire his side to their third continental title in this age category (2-1).
There can be few better judges of emerging talent in the Spanish game than Ginés Meléndez. The 56-year-old, a former physical education instructor, began his coaching career with hometown side Albacete, where he took charge of all the club's sides up to and including the senior team, which he managed for two brief spells in the Spanish First Division.
Meléndez came to work for the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) in 2002, when he joined the coaching staff of the country's youth and junior sides, playing a key role in assembling some of the finest young squads his country has ever produced. In 2003 he was assistant coach to the U-17 side that finished runners-up at both the UEFA European Under-17 Championship and the FIFA U-17 World Championship in Finland, and was also on the coaching staff of the U-20 team that were beaten finalists at that year's FIFA World Youth Championship in the UAE. Meléndez then teamed up with Armando Ufarte in 2004 as the U-19s became European champions in Switzerland, the same year in which he led the side to victory at the Mediterranean Games. Winning the 2006 UEFA European U-19 Championship with the same crop of players he fostered when he first arrived on the international scene four years ago is a fitting testimony to his ability to spot and nurture young talent.
Though it is difficult to single out individuals in a side that has so much talent throughout its lines, midfielder Juan Manuel Mata and striker Alberto Bueno have emerged as key figures by virtue of their ability to unlock the tightest of defences. The pair, both on the books at Real Madrid, have struck up a perfect understanding and are difficult to contain in and around the area. Unselfish passers of the ball, both can be decisive finishers when opportunity knocks, as they have shown on numerous occasions with the national team.