“Benat Etxebarria is a Spain player of the future,” said national team coach Vicente del Bosque just under a year ago. At the time La Roja were tuning up for UEFA EURO 2012, a tournament they would end up winning, and the coach had just named his squad for a series of pre-tournament friendlies. Among those chosen, to the surprise of some, was the Basque midfielder.
The Betis man made his international debut in a match against Serbia last May and started and finished the meeting with Korea Republic a few days later, a game in which he was his side’s best player. Though he ultimately failed to make the 23-man squad that would go on to win Spain’s third continental title, he was without question one of the revelations of those warm-up games.
Next stop Brazil?
Benat has made two more appearances for La Roja since then, and though Del Bosque has yet to call on his services this year, it would be no great surprise to see him make the squad for next month’s FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com the 26-year-old central midfielder made no secret of his desire to be there.
“It would be a dream come true to play for the national team in a major competition,” he said. “It’s what you dream about when you’re young, though you’ve got to do well for your club first of all because there’s an awful lot of competition.”
Breaking into a side that has won back-to-back European titles and the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ in between is no easy task, especially for a midfielder. With Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso having pulled the strings so adeptly for La Roja in recent years, gaining a place in the starting XI looks a very tall order for Benat, who has nevertheless presented a compelling case for inclusion.
“It’s a privilege to form part of this generation,” he enthused. “I’d barely even imagined playing with them and I can hardly believe it. I felt very proud when I did, though, because you see them in action and you say to yourself: ‘Crikey! I’ve played with them’.”
Del Bosque sees the player as a perfect fit for his team. Explaining the coach’s methods and defending the side against recent accusations that they can only play one way, Benat said: “He just asks you to stay calm and be yourself, and the style of play is very clearly defined. To be honest, I don’t know how anyone can question a ‘Plan A’ when we’ve won the lot with it. I’m sure the team would find a ‘Plan B’ and ‘C’ if it really had to, but to my mind this style works and there’s no need to change it.”
As he waits patiently for another opportunity to display his talents on the international stage, Benat is devoting his undivided attention to the end of the domestic season with Betis, who have gone from second division side to contenders for a place in Europe in two years flat. Unpredictable last season, when their form fluctuated considerably, the Seville side have been more consistent this time around, as their upwardly mobile midfielder explained:
“The team has matured and we’ve learned from our mistakes. We perhaps lacked experience but this year we are more solid at the back. We’ve played some good games and come away with some excellent results.”
A major reason for that is the tempo Benat sets in midfield, dictating the play in a side that makes up for its lack of star names with some entertaining and high-quality football.
With five league games remaining, the Andalusian outfit lie seventh in La Liga, four points adrift of sixth and a place in next season’s UEFA Europa League, an objective that the midfielder still believes they can achieve: “Yes, of course. Why not? We're motivated, we're a young team with a lot of ambition and we want to achieve big things. We believe we can do it.”
With points so precious, perhaps the last place Betis would want to visit at this stage of the season is the Camp Nou, especially with Barcelona anxious to seal the league title sooner rather than later. Whatever happens, it should be quite a match as Barça go up against a side that shares its philosophy of possession-based football, an approach built largely around the ball-playing skills of the bearded midfielder.
“Benat could play for Barcelona no problem,” said verdiblanco coach Pepe Mel, the man who gave the player his big break.
“I owe more to him than any other coach. He’s given me more opportunities than anyone and has had faith in me all the way,” said Benat, returning the compliment.
Betis’ chances of coming away from the Camp Nou with a result will hinge to a large extent on Benat, who will do his own chances of making Del Bosque’s final shortlist for Brazil 2013 no harm if he can turn in another polished performance.