Groups of young fans can be found swarming around the team hotels looking to snatch an autograph or photo of one of the stars of the future at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005. At Spain's headquarters, there is one name on everybody's lips: Cesc Fabregas.
After an early morning tactical session, the Argentine and Spanish players mingle in the lobby of their hotel in Enschede. Cesc heads over to Lionel Messi to wish him happy birthday and engage in some friendly banter ahead of their quarter-final showdown. Friends since their days at Barcelona, once they cross that white line next Saturday, winning will be all that matters.
"In this kind of tournament every opponent is dangerous and Argentina are always one of the contenders to reach the final, just like Brazil or Spain," said Fabregas to FIFA.com before heading out for a stroll with his team-mates.
Despite being the centre of attention as far as the fans and the media are concerned, Fabregas refuses to accept that he deserves special status. "Out here we're all equal and we're going to play as a team. Without my team-mates I'm nothing, just as they need me too. We're a group and we're not going to lose sight of that," says the 18-year-old starlet, nervously toying with his hair.
Inaki Saez's charges cruised through the group phases before calmly disposing of Turkey (3-0) in the last sixteen, showing the kind of maturity, experience and team spirit that have been their hallmarks this tournament.
"There are no easy games. In football you have to go out all guns blazing and give 100%. Things might go well for you or not, but you can't go out thinking that you've got the game in the bag before you've even kicked off," points out Fabregas. "We're very excited about the chance of going all the way in this tournament, and we're going to give it our best shot against Argentina to try and get that bit closer to our goal."
Saturday's rivals hold no surprises. The FIFA U-17 World Championship Finland 2003 saw these two sides meet at the semi-final stage, with Spain coming out on top via a goal in the dying moments of extra time. Several of the players who took part in that thrilling encounter will face each other again, this time at a higher level. They know each other all too well.
"In that game we were 2-0 down in the first half but we went on to win the game in the last minute of extra time. In football, everybody knows that in the space of five minutes a game can be turned completely on its head," recalls the Spanish midfielder who picked up both the Golden Ball for best player and Golden Boot for top scorer. However, the defeat against Brazil in the final was a bitter pill to swallow.
"Winning an individual award is a great boost for your confidence. It's a great feeling to be recognized as the best player in a world championship or if you've been fortunate enough to score a lot of goals. But the most important thing is to always play for the team. If it weren't for this bunch of players, we wouldn't be here. We mustn't focus on just one player," he explains with refreshing humility.
For now though, he is totally focused on his midfield duties in the title-chasing Spanish side. "We're 21 mates who are here to enjoy ourselves and have a good time without forgetting that our main objective is to compete and win. We believe that we're the best and we're going to try and prove it out on the pitch," he adds.
Argentina will not make things easy for them. "All the Argentine players are quality; they must be if they've got to the quarter-finals. They knock it about well in midfield, generally make good use of the ball and are clinical up front. They're also very competitive," says the Arsenal midfielder, summing up the Albiceleste.
Since the heady days of Finland, the player's progress has been startling. Signed by Arsenal at the tender age of 16 in October 2003, sharing a dressing room with the likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Viera has helped him develop his natural ability on the ball. This precocious talent led to his involvement with Spain's U-21 squad at just 17.
"Things are going well for me at the moment. I'm working really hard so that things continue that way. I've settled in really well in England where I've learned a lot in a short space of time. I'm very grateful to the club for having put their faith in me when I was only 16," he remarks with a broad grin.
Argentina and former team-mate Messi are next in line as Fabregas strives to leave the Netherlands with a winner's medal round his neck.