A day before the showpiece quarter-final between Argentina and Spain at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005, young Albicelestes star Lionel Messi was playing his cards close to his chest. His reticence can be explained by the fact that Spain's midfield prodigy Cesc Fábregas is standing within earshot in the lobby of their teams' hotel in Enschede, and offered Messi a friendly greeting.
"This will be a very difficult game against a strong team," Messi told FIFA.com on what happened to be his 18th birthday. But he refused to be drawn on his state of mind. "It's a game like any other," he insisted, even though the opponents are Spain and Messi has been under contract to Barcelona for the past five years.
Messi does not have much time to celebrate his coming of age. After lunch he received a cake, like the other Argentine players who have had a birthday during the tournament, then attention turned back to the game the following day as the squad embarked on their final training session behind closed doors in the Enschede stadium.
The Argentinians, who are seeking their fifth world title at this level, have been primarily concerned with preventative measures to counter the effects of the searing 35 degree Celsius heat.
Following the return to Enschede the players have been on a diet of carbohydrate-rich foods and are undertaking only light training, followed by restorative exercises. The players have been banned from activities such as table-tennis, so as not to burn up energy unnecessarily. Before the quarter-final with Spain the whole team said an emotional farewell to José Sosa, who has been forced to return home to Buenos Aires after breaking his wrist.
Speaking to FIFA.com, Argentine midfielder Lucas Biglia said of the looming confrontation with Spain: "We have to stop Fábregas and Juanfran taking charge of the game. We also have great players in our side, and it's important that we play to our strengths. In order to win we need to be strong in midfield and shut out their best players. It will be a very tough game, but if we want to do what we set out to and win the title we have to beat strong opponents in every round."
The Argentinians have not lost to European opposition since their 1-0 defeat to Portugal in the FIFA World Youth Championship1995. A statistic that is not lost on Spain coach Iñaki Sáez. The latter set out his strategy to FIFA.com: "We have to develop our own game, without making mistakes, and keep to our natural playing style, as we have done up to now - win the ball and switch quickly into attack."
"Goalscoring opportunities mostly stem from mistakes in defence or in midfield. In a tournament like this you need to avoid making mistakes if you want to deny your opponents any chances. If a team takes the lead, it's very difficult for the opposition to get back into the game. All games are difficult, and you have to win by performing well on the field."
Fábregas, who plays in England's Premiership with Arsenal, told FIFA.com: "As with any match we are extremely motivated. We want to win the tournament and we will go out and show that on the field. All the Argentine players are good - that's why they're in the quarter-finals. We've already played against them in the Under-17 World Championship in Finland in 2003, so we all know each other fairly well."
Spain has an impeccable record in the tournament so far. Four wins from four games is the impressive record of a team that last year won the European U-19 title in Switzerland. In the Round of 16 the Spaniards put an end to Turkey's own title pretensions with an emphatic 3-0 win. But after a slow start the Argentines too have found their rhythm in the tournament, as their 2-1 win over Colombia in the last round shows.
The two teams are meeting for the fourth time in a FIFA World Youth Championship, with the South Americans so far ahead 2-1. In 1995 the Gauchos won 3-0 in the semi-final on the way to their second world title, and in the last tournament, in the United Arab Emirates in 2003, they beat the Iberians 2-1 during the group phase. Spain's only victory over Argentina in this competition dates back to 1989.
This time Argentina has already seized the high ground in one, literal, respect. In the teams' headquarters hotel the Argentine team occupy the 15th floor, while Spain are one level below them on the 14th.