Even at youth level Spain remain the yardstick by which the rest of Europe is measured. La Rojita claimed their second successive title and sixth in eleven editions at the UEFA U-19 Championship 2012, which was held between 3 and 15 July in Estonia.
Julen Lopetegui's side are now one of the hot favourites for the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2013 in Turkey, where they will be joined by surprise package Greece, whom they beat in the final, semi-finalists France and England, as well as the third-placed teams in the group stage, Portugal and Croatia.
Those six, along with hosts Turkey, will represent the continent at next year's international showdown, which will be played between 21 June and 13 July in the host cities of Antalya, Bursa, Gaziantep, Istanbul, Kayseri, Rize and Trabzon.
In a repeat of the 2007 final, Spain had to be patient against a battling Greek side who held firm for 80 minutes before Jese Rodriguez finally broke the deadlock in Tallinn. The winning goal was the icing on the cake for the Real Madrid forward, who finished the tournament as top scorer with five goals.
Undoubtedly the strongest outfit in Estonia, La Rojita nonetheless required their fair share of fortune en route to the trophy after dropping points in a 3-3 group stage draw with Portugal and then squeezing past France 4-2 on penalties in the last four. "My players showed great character and absolutely deserved this triumph," said coach Lopetegui.
Despite their disappointment at missing out on the title, Greece won many friends with their performances and surpassed all expectations by reaching the final. Following a 2-1 opening defeat against the Spanish, Kostas Tsanas' side hit back with a 4-1 success against Estonia before overcoming Portugal 3-2 in their decisive final group game. The Greeks then sent England packing with a 2-1 victory after extra time in the semis, only to come up short against a superior Spanish side in the final.
Greece's enthusiastic and confident style will serve them well at next year's FIFA U-20 World Cup, where they will be joined by England and France, who only narrowly missed out on a place in the continental decider themselves. "We had a few players with the U-21s and a few injuries, so the fact we reached the semi-finals is something positive to take forward," said England coach Noel Blake.
The tournament was similarly bittersweet for Portugal and Croatia, who each failed to make the semi-finals but still qualified for Turkey 2013 by finishing third in their respective sections. While A Seleccao were pipped to a place in the last four by their final group game conquerors Greece, the relief was tangible for Croatia as they beat Serbia 3-0 in their last match to secure their place on the world stage.
While Spain, Greece, England and France celebrated, Estonia and Serbia were left dejected at the prospect of watching next year's international showpiece from their living rooms. Both teams went out with no points to their name and with just a single goal scored apiece.
Alongside top scorer Jese Rodriguez, team-mate Gerard Deulofeu showed some impressive skills for Spain and provided a number of assists. Greece captain Giorgos Katidis was an inimitable presence in midfield and his three goals propelled Kostas Tsanas' charges to the final, while France's Jean-Christophe Bahebeck and Portugal's Bruma each hinted that they have big futures ahead of them. Croatian playmaker Domagoj Pavicic was another who showed fine technique and powerful England defender Eric Dier's calming influence was matched only by his superb distribution.
3. England*, France*
5. Portugal*, Croatia*
7. Serbia, Estonia
*qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013
1. Jese Rodriguez (Spain, 5 goals)
2. Dimitris Diamantakos (Greece, 3)
Giorgos Katidis (Greece, 3)