At the tender age of 20, Pablo Zabaleta is already an old-hand when it comes to international competition. He was part of the Argentina team that took part in the FIFA U-17 World Championship Trinidad & Tobago 2001 only to lose against France in the semi-finals before ceding third-place to Burkina Faso. Two years later he was called-up to the side that travelled to the Middle-East for the FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003. This time around it was arch-rivals Brazil who put paid to their hopes at the semi-final stage, while fellow South Americans Colombia took the glory in the third-place playoff.
Led by their battle-hardened captain Zabaleta, Argentina are desperate not to fall short again at Netherlands 2005 and dream of emulating the side that lifted the trophy in Argentina 2001, with a certain Javier Saviola leading from the front.
The showdown with Colombia in the last sixteen comes as a welcome opportunity to take revenge for that game in the United Arab Emirates two years ago. Both teams come into the game on good form and full of confidence ahead of the knock-out stages.
How will the game against Colombia shape up?
It's going to be a tough game against a rival we know very well. We already came up against them three times before we got here and they are a very hard team to beat, like all South American sides. Getting a result will depend on us doing our job well, like in the last game, and showing the same teamwork and discipline that we showed against Germany. Only then will we have a chance of winning the match.
What do you fear most about the Cafeteros?
Colombia are a very good team. In the South American qualifiers they did very well, they have a very compact style of play and are very consistent. They've got very good players. But we too have a great team and this all-South American tie is going to be an enjoyable game to play in.
You lost against them in the United Arab Emirates. Is this a chance to set the record straight?
This is a whole new story, a different tournament and a different set of circumstances: this time we're playing each other in the last sixteen. Hopefully we can do things right and win this classic encounter.
Argentina played markedly better in the game against Germany compared with the opening game defeat. The team looks to be making progress…
We didn't make a good start. We were forced to endure an unexpectedly difficult first game, although we had chances to draw or even win the game, despite not playing well. The team has bounced back well from the heavy blow against the USA. We realised that we had a lot more to offer and bit by bit our confidence has grown. We improved a lot in the game against Egypt and against Germany we played really well.
This progression is mainly due to not having had many opportunities to work together before we got here. The majority of the players play in the First Division and their clubs are reluctant to release them. We only got together barely a week before setting off to Holland. Throughout this time, the team have been getting to know each other bit by bit and we're starting to click out on the pitch.
Argentina look to be struggling in front of goal…
Yes, we're making hard work of putting away our opportunities. We're not being ruthless enough. We're making clear-cut chances but we're not taking many of them. We've scored relatively few goals compared with the chances we've had. Hopefully we can improve on that statistic.
What is your verdict on the standard of play in this FIFA World Youth Championship?
Very good. They are all great teams and there's not much difference between the sides. The strongest teams are lasting the distance and fingers crossed we'll see a good Final because there are some really good teams and players on show. Spain have a great team, Brazil always have quality players at their disposal and I've been pleasantly surprised with Holland.
This is your third World Championship experience. What do you remember of your previous campaigns?
I've been lucky enough to take part in several World Championships, thanks to God's help. These tournaments offer you the chance to learn about other countries and cultures at an early age and give you the opportunity to play against great players from all over the world. That experience can prove very useful later on.
In the Argentina team I've been able to play with some of the world's top players, like Tevez, Cavenaghi and Mascherano, who have gone on to play at the highest level and have taught me a lot. Now I'm the oldest, and it's a real honour to captain these lads who have progressed through the youth ranks with me.
After so much experience with the youth categories, the next step should be the senior national side…
Yes please! Hopefully one day I'll get the chance to play in the senior national side. That's my goal but I'm not putting any pressure on myself because I'm only 20 and I've still got a long way to go. In any case, this tournament is an ideal opportunity to put yourself in the shop window and I'm sure that many of the players in this team will go on to play for the senior side.