The 2001 edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup is one Javier Saviola is unlikely to forget. Playing on home soil under the stewardship of Jose Pekerman, he powered La Albiceleste to the world title, picking up the adidas Golden Boot and Golden Ball along the way.
It would be just the first of many golden moments for the striker known as El Conejito, who notched no fewer than 11 goals at that tournament. The haul, which included two hat-tricks and two braces, remains a tournament record, and not even the great Lionel Messi, who hit six at the same event in 2005, came close to matching it.
Currently on the books of Spanish outfit Malaga, the vastly experienced 31-year-old spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about recent disappointments for his country’s U-20 side and what it was like to become world champion at such a tender age.
FIFA.com: You achieved some wonderful things with your country’s U-20 side, which recently failed to qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013. What’s your take on the current standard of youth football in Argentina?
Javier Saviola: Truth be told, in recent years the U-20 side has not been performing to the standard it has done in the past, when the youth teams were always among the world’s best. However, these kind of spells can happen, and hopefully we can get back to where we were and soon see La Albiceleste on the world stage again.
You also hold the record for most goals scored at this tournament, which you and your team-mates won in emphatic style. Looking back now, how do you remember it?
Without question as one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Becoming world champion on home soil in front of our own people, and then winning those individual accolades, was one of the best times of my professional career.
Does winning a world title at such a young age mark a player’s character for the future?
Yes, as it’s a unique experience. You’re playing at a World Cup at a young age and that makes you stronger, as you start to get a feel for international football by competing against other teams from South America, Europe… That doesn’t happen every day, and so you accumulate a lot of experience and game time. At such a young age, it’s a real springboard.
To what extent does success at youth level depend on the talent of a given generation and the footballing project that’s in place?
Well, it depends a great deal on who’s been tasked with managing such very young players, because aside from being a coach he (or she) must have the skills of a psychologist. We’re talking about very young kids here who are in the midst of maturing both as players and people. You need to have a very savvy coach who can adapt to working with youngsters, as opposed to professional players. Our team at the time, under Jose Pekerman, was always first class.
What’s Pekerman like to work with? He’s currently enjoying success with Colombia and all his former charges speak very highly of him…
He’s a very good coach, a great person and extremely capable of leading a group. He knows a great deal about football but also how to get that across to his players. He helps you a lot on a personal level. I had him with the U-20s when I was going through a complicated period in my life. He couldn’t have done more for me and helped me with everything.