There is no denying that Spain is currently in vogue in the world of football – and quite deservedly so. After long years in the doldrums, the last decade has witnessed the country’s emergence as a veritable force across all age categories, culminating in the senior team’s triumph at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa.
It is also true that this success has been far from coincidental, but rather the result of the conscientious and coordinated work of the Spanish FA (RFEF). It was no surprise then that this very topic was covered in the opening session of the UEFA Conference for European National Team Coaches in Madrid (20-22 September), where Fernando Hierro and Gines Melendez, Sporting Director and Technical Director of the RFEF respectively, gave a presentation entitled 'The Spanish School of Football'. At the end of the session, Melendez made time for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com on success of the Spanish model.
A style by consensus
For his part, the RFEF’s Technical Director has no doubt as to when the seeds for the country’s recent success were planted, as he immediately pointed out: “The arrival of Inaki Saez in 1996 [to coach the country’s youth team] marked the start of the process, the continuity of which has been fundamental. More recently, in his role as Sporting Director, Fernando Hierro has also brought in many new initiatives while still respecting the fine work done previously.”
Melendez proceeded to share some of the key aspects of the Iberian model. “We follow one style of play across all the age categories. Indeed we even work on the same playing strategies and use the same selection criteria for players across the board. All the aforementioned, allied to the work we do on group cohesiveness using established standards and values, ensure that when the young players come of age, they have the same footballing philosophy and show a strong collective spirit out on the pitch.”
And the results are there for all to see. Year after year, in age group after age group, Spain now find themselves perennial contenders for the top prizes. Moreover, the very act of winning has created a new mentality, one which is being passed down to the new generations. “When you’ve won everything there is to win as a kid, then you know how to play the major tournaments,” said Melendez proudly. "When the youngsters make the breakthrough at senior level, they are fully aware of what big games are about, while the developing players learn too by watching them. These are experiences you cannot get in a domestic competition. They only come with success on the international stage."
And the revelations do not end there either, with the Technical Director going on stress the importance of their coordinated talent-spotting system. “We have an annual meeting with the [scouting] coordinators at every age level, and we also call them weekly to get an update on games from the previous Sunday. As you can imagine, the Federation has quite a hefty telephone bill (laughs), though the system does allow us to have the very latest information. Furthermore, the infrastructure we have is superb, as it’s split into divisions, regions and a national league. However, the key is the competition between teams representing their regions. We can see the best players in Spain compete during its four stages every year."
Of course, Melendez is not the only one singing the praises of the Spanish model. Right across the globe, coaches and director speak in glowing terms of what has been done in this part of the Iberian Peninsula. Vicente del Bosque, who led the senior team to glory in South Africa, summed up the long-term nature of the project when he addressed the conference, saying: “The style of play we have is shaped by the abilities of the players we produce and the fact that we haven’t tried to imitate anyone else. It’s a process that takes years and one that includes the development of very structured routines and playing methods.”
It was a sentiment shared by Laurent Blanc, the France national team coach, who said: “The model used for player development in Spanish football is very strong and has enabled its leading exponents, Real Madrid and Barcelona, to become European champions six times between them over the last 20 years. Just how well it works has been borne out by the great results Spain have been enjoying in international youth competitions these past 15 years.”
The Mexican coach Hugo Sanchez, currently based in Spain, and Argentinian tactician Carlos Bilardo were also lavish in their praises. “You just need to look at the results and the continuous work that’s been done with the senior team,” said the former Real Madrid marksman, while the man who led La Albiceleste to glory at Mexico 1986 said it was “a model that was leading the way in every sense and well worth imitating”.
The Spanish model was just one of many topics discussed at the UEFA conference in Madrid. During the three-day gathering, speakers included national coaches of the calibre of Del Bosque, Bert van Maarwijk, Joachim Low, Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello and Ottmar Hitzfeld, as well as officials like Angel Maria Villar Llona, President of the RFEF, Jean-Paul Brigger, Director of FIFA’s Technical Study Group, and Andy Roxburgh, UEFA Technical Director.