The FIFA U-20 World Cup represents familiar territory for Julen Lopetegui. The Spain coach, currently in Manizales readying his team for their opening match at Colombia 2011, was La Rojita’s back-up goalkeeper at this same tournament 26 years ago.
While the mechanics of the game may not have altered that much, the intervening years have seen the event undergo a change of name and the host nation in 1985 (the Soviet Union) break up into its constituent parts. Such differences are not lost on the Spanish tactician. “I have very fond memories of that tournament. But my goodness, how things have changed!” Lopetegui recalled to FIFA.com.
“Back then the venues were extremely far away from each other – today they’re independent republics. It was quite an experience. To us, it was like another world; we were just fascinated by our new surroundings. We were only able to speak to our families once every four days, as there were so few telephones,” he continued.
This visit behind the Iron Curtain at such a young age helped the Spanish players to mature both on and off the pitch. They enjoyed a successful tournament, reaching the final before losing to Brazil after extra time. “It was very exciting. For us, the event was a wonderful opportunity to compete against the world’s best – it wasn’t something that came along every day,” said the once-capped ex-keeper.
“The group stage was such a struggle; we only just qualified, beating Ireland 4-2 in the last game. We had a team that could really battle, though, and through effort and hard work, we made it to the final. And while there was nothing like the media coverage that there is today, our run still had quite an impact,” he added.
Nowadays, players rarely travel without the latest mobile phones or laptop computers, and information is disseminated instantly via a variety of platforms. This has had a knock-on effect on their early career progression, according to Lopetegui: “Because of the media, the public get to know players much earlier than before. Time frames are completely different now. Today, there’s more of a rush to secure the signatures of young guys, and there are more in the first-team group than when I was playing.”
The Iberians’ present squad is the perfect example of this modern phenomenon. “Almost to a man, our players have ‘professional’ written all over them. But the demands of football set certain limits. You need much more than pure talent to succeed – hard work, sacrifice and ambition are equally essential. Competition, in both senses of the word, tends to sort the wheat out from the chaff," Lopetegui warned.
From box to bench
For the former shot-stopper, who played for – among other clubs – Real Madrid, Logrones and Barcelona, it was a natural step to make the transition from making saves to picking teams, after an interlude spent commentating on matches for Spanish television.
“As a player, I was always interested in pretty much everything related to football, not just in goalkeeping. I was eager to learn about a coach’s duties, and to understand the reasoning behind specific moves and formations; this curiosity drove me to get my coaching licence and continue down that path,” explained the 44-year-old, who was appointed to his current role after former coach Luis Milla had overseen Spain’s qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
With the change at the helm came a subsequent shuffling of the squad. Only 12 of the 21 players currently in Colombia were involved in the side that reached the final of the UEFA European U-19 Championship in 2010. Many were promoted to the U-21 team that will compete in the Olympic Football Tournament at London 2012 next year, but the assembly line of talent in Spain has already provided numerous high-quality replacements.
“All the players are aware of the significance of playing in the U-20 World Cup. They’re all very excited, because you just never know if you’ll get to play on this kind of stage again,” said the Basque, who tends to extol the collective virtues of the team rather than pick out specific individuals.
Given the excellent reputation of all of Spain’s age categories, from its senior XI down to its youth sides, as well as the pressure that comes with representing the current FIFA World Cup™ holders, there are high expectations on La Rojita, who will face Australia, Ecuador and Costa Rica in Group C.
“I don’t like talking about pressure; I prefer to use the word ‘opportunity’. This is a fantastic competition that is both enjoyable and challenging. You’re up against some of the best players in the world, and you’re desperate to show that you deserve to be there. That’s the great thing about it. The challenge aspect is also individual, because not only does it allow you to show off your skills to the whole world, but it helps you to develop as a footballer,” Lopetegui said.
The Spain coach knows all about the type of ‘opportunity’ he describes, as he earned his and embraced it fully. Some 26 years on, his goal is to guide a new generation of talented players down the same productive path.