Can youth reverse Spain's curse?
© AFP

It has become something a cliche in world football circles, and an enduring source of hardship for long-suffering Spaniards: the senior national team, loaded with talent and tipped for at least the last four at a world finals or a EURO, will fall flat before the final eight.

Some of the greatest minds in football literature, reportage and general punditry have puzzled over the mystery. Why, with one of the strongest leagues on the planet and a squad perennially loaded with some of the best players in the world, is Spain's only senior title of note a UEFA European Championship in 1964.

Many explanations have been offered: regionalism, politics and club rivalries to name a few. None though ring with the voice of complete persuasiveness, and rather than curse Spain's seemingly endless darkness on the senior world stage, FIFA.com will attempt to shine a light on what has been described as the greatest collection of youth players in the country's history.

Young guns
If Spain's seniors have had their troubles, fortunes on the world youth and junior stages have been much better. With one U-20 title and two final appearances and three U-17 final appearances, Spain's young guns bask in relative glory, and a brief glimpse at the last three sections of the FIFA U-20 and U-17 World Cups gives sharp insight into the kind of future Spain has to look forward to.

The tenth U-17 showpiece in Finland in the summer of 2003 introduced a trio of names that now ring out in Spain, England and across the globe too. One Cesc Fabregas, then 16, finished tournament top scorer and best player in Spain's run to the final. He had some help too, in the form of David ( El Guaje or 'the kid') Villa who now has over 42 goals in 70 appearances for Valencia and 13 in 23 caps for Spain's seniors, and his elegant club mate David Silva.

By the time he had reached the U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands two years later, Fabregas was already in Arsenal's first team and turning heads. But then coach and Spain's youth guru Inaki Saez wasn't sure of Cesc, who he considered a bit too slight, saying: "Well, we have to be careful with him and not push him too fast. He's just a little slip of a thing."

The coach's concerns were unfounded as Fabregas, now a mainstay in the senior national team, soon stepped into Patrick Vieira's sizeable boots at Arsenal and ranks among England's best. Not bad for a lad of still only 20. Even with all his achievements, he will not be well pleased to have lost out in the quarters of Netherlands 2005 to another prodigy - Lionel Messi and eventual champions Argentina.

Incredible Iniesta
Andres Iniesta is another young Spanish gem forged in the fires of recent world youth competitions. The current Barcelona star was the outstanding player in Spain's U-20 side that roared to the final of UAE 2003. Soft spoken and humble off the pitch, Iniesta was, and is, a giant on it. But even then, the notice he garnered made him a little uncomfortable.

"I always had posters of my favourite footballers on my bedroom wall," he told FIFA.com in Abu Dhabi in 2003. "The idea that there could be kids out there with my picture on their wall, or being recognised in the street, gives me a strange feeling. It's beyond words."

More than holding his own alongside Ronaldinho, Deco, Henry, Messi and Eto'o in the Barcelona first team, fame is unavoidable for pale-faced Andres.

While the classes of '03 and '05 are already in the mix for the senior team, currently wobbling in second place in a tight qualifying Group F for UEFA EURO 2008, a batch of stars for the future emerged in the youth tournaments of this year.

The FIFA U-17 World Cup played in Korea in August, saw Barca's dazzling Bojan and another Arsenal product - Fran Merida - help Spain to the final. And although the former remains humble despite his more than 1000 goals at youth level and a handful of sub's appearances for Barca's first team in the early part of this season, U-17 coach and former Real great Juan Santisteban sees a special player in Bojan: "He's amazing and with tremendous potential. He is obsessed with scoring and there's no limit to what he can achieve."

An astounding crop
Could Merida be the next Fabregas for Arsenal and Spain? "The education he is getting in England is going to serve him well and we will be hearing his name in the future," Santisteban says.

Another name for Spain's future is one Diego Capel, 19, who's roving work and speed on the left flank for the U-20s in Canada this summer was a delight. He is currently working himself into a starting role at UEFA Cup holders Sevilla alongside 21-year-old starlet Jesus Navas.

As greats like Raul and Morientes drift into the past, Spain can take heart in this wily new gang whose names are already ringing out with the irresistable tambor of youth - Iniesta, Fabregas, Silva, Villa stand alongside Fernando Torres of Liverpool who played at the U-17 world finals in Trinidad and in 2001, and Sergio Ramos, 21, of Real Madrid. And with others desperate to climb the ladder hot on their heels, it is possible that Spain's curse may find reverse in the near future.