Unfinished business for Spain
Spain - Tahiti, 25 September 2009
Ander Herrera of Spain beats Tehevarii Ludivion of Tahiti
CAIRO, EGYPT - SEPTEMBER 25: Ander Herrera of Spain beats Tehevarii Ludivion of Tahiti during the FIFA U20 World Cup Group B match between Spain and Tahiti at the Al Salam Stadium on September 25, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo by Alex Livesey - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Jordi Alba of Spain holds off a challenge from Alvin Tehau of Tahiti
CAIRO, EGYPT - SEPTEMBER 25: Jordi Alba of Spain holds off a challenge from Alvin Tehau of Tahiti during the FIFA U20 World Cup Group B match between Spain and Tahiti at the Al Salam Stadium on September 25, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo by Alex Livesey - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
It was just over two years ago when Fran Merida endured one of the most painful experiences of his fledgling football career. With a penalty shoot-out needed to separate Spain and Nigeria in the final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007, Merida was one of three Spaniards to miss from the spot as Nigeria took the title.
Now, though, this gutsy and intelligent midfielder has the opportunity to make amends as Spain prepare to meet the Flying Eagles in Monday's Group B clash at Egypt 2009. "The memory of that game still haunts me. To work so hard and then lose everything on a penalty shoot-out is difficult. But we're not going into this game with revenge on our minds. It's more important to take our tally to six points and stay top of the group," he said.
Moreover, the Arsenal youngster believes that the game two years ago will have no bearing on tomorrow's fixture: "There are a lot of new players so that's all in the past now. The main thing is to be firmly focused on getting the three points - nothing else matters. "
So what would it take to exorcise the ghosts of Korea 2007? "Winning the title would do it - and that's my goal here - but it's too early to be thinking about that. We've got to take it one step at a time."
That first step was nothing if not emphatic, with La Rojita justifying their pre-tournament billing with a crushing 8-0 defeat of Tahiti in their opening match. "The game wasn't as easy as the scoreline suggests. We worked very hard and were lucky enough to score three goals in the first 17 minutes," says the Barcelona native.
Over and above the three points, the 19-year-old was encouraged by the manner in which Spain went about their business. "It was great that we stuck to our game-plan of keeping possession and continuing to attack. We kept pushing that's a great positive to take from the performance. But now we're facing tougher matches, so we have to keep a cool head and our feet on the ground."
The memory of that game still haunts me. To work so hard and then lose everything on a penalty shoot-out is difficult.
The central midfield man also took time out to watch his group rivals live last Friday and had this to say about them: "Nigeria are physically very fit and always battle hard. We don't know a whole lot about Venezuela but from what I've seen they have quality players. They'll be another dangerous team."
That said, Merida feels his side need to focus on their own game. "We've got a footballing philosophy that you can see across every age level: we like to use the flanks, keep the ball on the ground and play a passing game. We've been playing this way a long time and, as it's served us well so far, we see no reason to change."
After Korea 2007, Merida spent half a season on loan at Real Sociedad in Spain's second division before returning to England, where he continues to fight for a first-team place. Has much changed in these two years? "Well I hope I've improved a bit," he laughs. "Seriously, it's a great privilege to be at a club like Arsenal and I can only become a better player there. Experiences help you grow as a footballer, but I still have a long way to go. This tournament is another important step."
Of course, Merida is well aware that Spain's only triumph at the FIFA U-20 World Cup came ten years ago on African soil, ironically in Nigeria. If not superstitious, he is certainly determined to see history repeat itself. "I was just a kid then and don't really remember, but we're definitely here with the same intention. As I said, we need to take it one game at a time, but if we do go all the way, then the memory of Korea will be well and truly forgotten."