With less than a month to go before Spain kick off their FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 campaign against USA in Istanbul, coach Julen Lopetegui graciously took time out from his preparations to speak to FIFA.com. The Spanish supremo is currently working on the tactics and strategies he hopes can carry La Rojita to a second crown at this level – following in the footsteps of a generation headed by Iker Casillas and Xavi at Nigeria 1999.
And, for the moment at least, things are looking positive, with Lopetegui’s charges beating Paraguay 3-1 in their last friendly game prior to their June training camp – during which the team will play two more friendlies. The coach has taken full advantage of the time spent with these gifted youngsters to continue shaping his definitive squad and honing a style built on the same fundamentals as the senior side: possession, short-passing and combination play.
Yet despite going into the competition as European champions and boasting players of the calibre of Gerard Deulofeu, Jese Rodriguez and Oliver Torres, Lopetegui, as our chat revealed, refused to put a favourites’ tag on his side’s shoulders.
FIFA.com: Julen, just weeks ahead of Turkey’s big kick-off on 21 June, your team has beaten Paraguay and has two more friendlies to come – against Chile and Uzbekistan – in early June. What are you looking to gain from these warm-up games?
Julen Lopetegui: I’ve not seen much of the lads this year. We only had two training sessions before the Paraguay game and, even though the players know each other and played together at last year’s European Championship, then they all went off to their own clubs and got used to a different style of football. For that reason, the most important part of these preparatory sessions is trying to refresh their memories as to the style we expect from them.
Spain have been drawn in Group A alongside USA, Ghana and France. Do you feel it’s the competition’s toughest section: the 'Group of Death'?
Rather than a ‘Group of Death’, let’s call it the ‘Group of Hope’, which sounds nicer! We’re excited and hopeful about tackling a very difficult challenge, which is what making it out of this very tough group is going to be. We know France very well, because we met them in the semi-finals of the European Championship, and some of their players have progressed so much they’ve already made their senior debuts. Ghana are regulars at these tournaments and are always among the contenders, because they assemble very powerful teams. What’s more, they’ve only recently taken part in the African championships at this age level, which is an advantage.
The same goes for USA, who have just come through CONCACAF qualifying. I managed to see them in action, such as in the final against Mexico, and the standards they hit were extremely high. They proved to be a very competitive side that can play football. What’s more, they’ll be very well-prepared, which will make them fearsome opponents. I’d have preferred to play them in our third group game, having picked up a bit more momentum, but seeing as we’ve got them first we’ll have to make sure we’re in top form from the off to be able to hold our own.
Given it’s such a tough group, are you concerned that your players might succumb to the pressure in the case of an opening game slip-up?
We’re going to try to prepare as thoroughly as we can, so we go into the tournament in as good physical and mental shape as possible. Using that as a base, we’ll try to get off to the best start possible, there’s nothing more to it than that. After that, whatever happens, we’ll try and handle it as well as we can. This is a squad that has been forged in adversity. In the European Championship we were pushed to the limit the whole time, such as in the game against Italy. With 15 minutes to go we were heading out of the competition but the lads managed to turn things around, and I believe that in Turkey we’ll be able to show that character too.
As European champions and regular faces at FIFA youth tournaments, Spain are among many observers’ favourites to take the trophy in Turkey. Would anything less than victory or a near-miss be a disappointment?
If you could guarantee me that donning the favourites’ tag would help us play better or give us extra points then we’d take it but, as it’s not the case, we’re not buying into that. It does us no good at all. It’s going to be an incredibly difficult competition, and I think the people who put those labels on often do so out of ignorance.
There will be some very strong teams that are perhaps not particularly well-known while, in fact, other nations like Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany haven’t even managed to qualify. The right to play at a World Cup like this is something you earn, nobody gives it you for free. Putting everything else aside though, obviously we’ve got a healthy desire to compete and to want make our mark, but words such as ‘success’ or ‘failure’ sound too distant to me. The most important thing is to be as well-prepared as possible going into the tournament.
You were also Spain coach at the previous edition at Colombia 2011, when La Rojita exited in the last eight against eventual champions Brazil. Can you draw any conclusions or lessons from that tournament to help you this time around?
In these short tournaments there’s an element of luck that you need to have on your side at key moments, because any mistake can potentially send you home. In Colombia we performed really well against Brazil but we went out on penalties.
We also already know from experience that many teams will go into this competition with higher fitness levels than us because, due to the nature of their domestic competition, they’ve been able to dedicate more time towards preparing for this World Cup. Besides which, a lot of our players come to this tournament with very little playing time under their belts, because they’re at Primera Division clubs without being regular starters. That’s something that worries us but we can’t do anything about it. They’re circumstances that we know exist thanks to our experiences in Colombia, but we’re going to try and handle them and go all the way to the final.
In addition to coaching the U-20s in Colombia, you also took part in this competition as a player back in 1985. Speaking from that dual perspective, how much does it mean to have the opportunity to play in a FIFA World Cup at youth level?
It’s an exciting competition and a great shop window. Besides which, it’s likely that for many players it’ll be their only World Cup, because it’s no easy task reaching the senior national team. It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, so I’ve tried to get it through to them that they need to make the most of this opportunity, enjoy it and give it everything they’ve got.
One final question, what are your expectations for Turkey 2013?
I’m sure that it’s going to be a very good and well-organised World Cup. Turkey’s a real football country and has quality stadiums, so it has all the ingredients to put on a great tournament.