Every team serious about winning silverware needs that special player, one that can turn it on when the chips are down. And Spain, who have their sights set firmly on clinching a FIFA World Youth Championship semi-final berth on Friday, have just such a man: Andrés Iniesta. Only hours away from that crucial tie against Canada, FIFA.com talked to the Iberian standard bearer about his side's chances, the quality of the football in the tournament and his dreams of lifting the trophy.
"I guess you could say I'm a kind of leader within the team because of my experience. But hey, I can't win a game on my own." Iniesta's first words of the interview reveal the fine blend of talent, humility and plain shyness running through the footballer's veins: "I know I'm getting better as the championship goes on, but I just do my bit for the team, just like all the other lads do."
After the taxing tie against Paraguay, the Spaniards now face Canada, one of the dark horses of the tournament: "I don't know much about them, but if they've made it this far there must be a reason for it. No-one gets to the quarter-finals on luck alone," he says. "But rather than thinking about what they're capable of, we have to concentrate on our own game. If we play the way we know we can, we stand a great chance of making it to the last four. We have to show no fear and go out and play like we did in the last few games."
Iniesta had been marked out as one to watch well before this competition got underway and his performances so far only confirm that the boy is definitely out of the ordinary. Brought up through the ranks of Albacete and FC Barcelona, this softly-spoken, unassuming young man is the footballing brains that every winning side needs. He organises, spreads the ball, beats men and even finds the net: "I've always admired players like Josep Guardiola or Michael Laudrup. But of those around today, the one I like most has to be Pablo Aimar. I love everything he does: he puts the wind up the opposition, he's a nice passer of the ball and he gets goals."
"I always had posters of my favourite footballers on my bedroom wall. As time went by, though, I took a few of them down," he confesses with a grin. "The idea that there could be kids out there with my picture on their wall, or being recognised in the street, gives me a feeling beyond words. It's a huge honour."
niesta has been fundamental in Spain's revival after the opening-match defeat at the hands of Argentina. And his goal against Uzbekistan must rank among the finest of the tournament so far: "Going down in our debut match made us stronger as a unit. We all had to pull together and we're reaping the rewards of that effort now," says the player who has left the stadium after the last two games with an ice-pack to soothe his bruised and battered legs: "I'm used to taking the knocks because it comes with the position and the way I play. And anyway, if they're kicking you up in the air it's because you're on form, and that's what counts."
Friends, partners and rivals
As the days wear on in the UAE, the videogame competitions among the Spanish squad are taking on epic proportions. Iniesta and Sergio García, Barcelona team mates and the crucial striking partnership on the field, are the "bitterest" rivals when it comes to this speciality: "I always choose AC Milan and in the last semi-final I knocked out Sergio's Arsenal," sniggers Andrés. "That's not true! And I want to make it clear the games console isn't even mine," retorts the striker.
Back in the real world, the pair are José Ufarte's dynamic duo: "Sergio is quick and a real 'matador' in front of goal," says Iniesta. "Andrés can't rest on his laurels now. He's all set to be the player of the tournament," ventures García.
Complements apart, Iniesta thinks the experience in the Emirates so far has been well worth it: "We're having a ball, especially now we're winning. It's makes life a whole lot easier. We're all fired up to do something big here. We're on the right track and we just have to take it a notch higher."
"Getting through to the semi-finals would be a massive achievement, but we want to go all the way. The dream final? Anyone would do provided we're there. Having said that, I wouldn't mind playing Argentina again." As the young man himself says, Spain definitely seem to be on the right track.