On no fewer than four occasions over the last three months, Spain has been able to toast a European success by one of its teams. Following the trail blazed by the men’s senior side in recent years, Spain’s club and international teams have been hitting the heights in Europe and proving that, whatever is about in fashion, in football at least, red is the colour.
The first success of the summer came on 28 May, when Barcelona stylishly and emphatically brushed aside Manchester United to claim the UEFA Champions League. Such was the superiority of Pep Guardiola’s side that his counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson said afterwards: “In my time as a manager it’s the best team we’ve faced, and I think everyone acknowledges that. I accept that. It’s not easy when you have been well beaten like that. No one has given us a hiding like that before.”
With the end of the club season and the men’s senior team having a well-earned break after three intense and unforgettable summer campaigns, it was the turn of Spain’s youth teams to take centre stage.
La Roja’s failure to grace the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament since Sydney 2000 had unquestionably become a sore point for Spanish football. At the start of the millennium, when a side including current world champions Xavi, Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevilla and Carlos Marchena took the silver medal, the idea of sitting out the next two editions would have been dismissed.
Understandably, there was an enormous amount of pressure placed on Luis Milla’s young charges not to miss out on a third. Boasting much of the side that became European champions at U-20 level in 2010, and ably reinforced by world champions Juan Mata and Javi Martinez, it was a challenge they faced with considerable confidence. At June’s UEFA European U-21 Championship in Denmark, which doubled as the Olympic qualifying event, La Rojita defeated Switzerland in the final to secure the continental crown and a place at London 2012. Instrumental in that victorious campaign was Thiago Alcantara, the latest jewel to emerge from Barcelona’s famous youth academy. After the triumph the celebrated midfielder told FIFA.com: “This is an incredible generation of players. They’re superb – the best of recent years.”
A sizeable number of that U-21 team could have also represented Spain at the recent FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia, but the selectors opted instead to blood new players. Yet despite the decision to travel without most of their established stars, La Selección performed admirably, displaying the slick passing football that has become the trademark of the senior team. The team’s Colombian adventure would end in the quarter-finals, however, where they went out to eventual champions Brazil on penalties after a closely-fought encounter.
All told, there is a wealth of talented and proven youngsters who senior coach Vicente del Bosque will shortly have at his disposal, as Thiago reminded FIFA.com some months ago.
“Spain aim to win every competition they enter. They’re the best national side in the world and have a tremendous youth set-up. The (World Cup winners’) star on the shirt doesn’t put more pressure on you: it motivates you. For us younger players it’s a real stimulus, because that’s what we want to achieve one day too.”
Continuity the key
The summer festivities continued into August, this time with the U-19s taking the European title at the expense of Czech Republic. Afterwards, coach Gines Melendez was quick to praise the country’s FA for the youth development project it had been pursuing for several years: “The key is the work started by the RFEF in every region of the country. These young lads come to us around the age of 15 and they’re taught to play in a certain way. That style is the same across all age categories and will be the same if they reach senior level," Melendez explained.
The Spanish FA is rightly proud of this continued success, one that has been consolidated across the various age categories. This ongoing project, which began under the stewardship of Inaki Saez, is founded on the principle that the national underage teams are the training grounds for the senior side. This development is by definition a long-term process, requiring considerable patience and the collective efforts of the regional federations, clubs and families.
The whole process is made more fluid and natural for the players as it has a clearly defined objective and is taught from an early age. Moreover, it involves a uniform style and the same methods and discipline that are applied to the senior team.
Here come the women
The same principles and philosophy apply equally to the women’s national teams, even if the project has not been in place as long as the men’s. Despite that, the policy has already begun paying dividends, with the U-17 side winning the UEFA European Championship in 2010 and following that up with third place at last year’s FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago and another European title this year.
“It’s incredible Spain have won back-to-back [European] titles,” said coach Jorge Vilda, “and it’s a hugely significant triumph for Spanish women’s football.” Yet no one is resting on their laurels, least of all Jorge’s father Angel, who coaches the U-19 team and who has 11 players who came through the ranks of his son’s U-17 squad. “Our goal is to reach the final of [the European U-19 Championship] Turkey 2012,” Vilda senior said.
After such a great 2011, Spanish football fans have every reason to look forward to 2012. Taking centre stage next year will be UEFA EURO in Ukraine/Poland and the London Olympics. What are the odds there is another red summer across Europe?