- FIFA Legend Fernando Morientes visited Poland ahead of U-20 World Cup
- The former Spain international stopped by Lodz, the host of the final
- Morientes spoke with FIFA.com in an exclusive interview
Fernando Morientes was in Lodz on Tuesday to see final preparations for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019. The former Spanish international visited the city’s stadium, which will host ten fixtures (including the opening game, the Polish team’s group matches and the final), and also met with students from the Lodz University of Technology.
Polish Football Association (PZPN) President Zbigniew Boniek accompanied Morientes on his tour of the host city. The former striker was delighted with what he saw and shared his thoughts with FIFA.com in a special interview.
FIFA.com: There’s just over a month until the start of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, a tournament you also played in. How do you remember the experience?
Fernando Morientes: Although a lot has happened since then, we’re talking about 1995 here, I have to say it was an unforgettable experience. Also, because it was the first big event of my career. I was incredibly young, full of youthful exuberance, and I couldn’t wait to play. I was proud to be able to represent my country.
You had an excellent team back then and finished fourth. Was that a success or a failure?
Our aim was to reach the final. We hadn’t convinced ourselves that we were definitely going to win the tournament, but we really wanted to get to the final. Unfortunately, we came up against Argentina.
And you lost 3-0...
Yes, unfortunately. However, on the whole, the experience in Qatar was invaluable. That was when I understood what football was all about: although you always want to win, sometimes you don’t quite manage to do so.
How do you think the players will benefit from playing at this U-20 World Cup?
They’ll gain experience on many different levels. When young players play at these tournaments, they learn that football isn’t easy and can sometimes be extremely difficult. And that’s what I remember. You won’t always achieve those lofty ambitions. You have to be prepared for the fact that sometimes you’ll fail. That’s when you need to analyse what went wrong and keep moving forward. Of course, these competitions also develop you as a footballer. In my opinion, it’s fantastic when you look back at your career and you have memories of playing at one of these prestigious tournaments, like the U-20 World Cup, as a young 18 or 19-year-old. Competitions like these help shape you. I had the pleasure of representing the U-18 team, but playing for the U-20s was special. When you put on your nation’s jersey, you get a feeling of joy and honour but also one of responsibility.
When you look back on the tournament, what do you remember the most – was it the nerves or the joy of playing?
It’s a mixture of the two. We had quite an easy start, as we beat Burundi 5-1. However, the pressure grew the further we went; we were desperate to win. And I go back to what I said earlier: we’ve seen in these tournaments before that even if you have a great team, like we did, that doesn’t always mean you’ll beat everyone. Also, playing in such a tournament gives you a taster of what to expect during your career. Football revolves around airplanes, training camps, hotels, lots of travelling and long spells away from home. You learn about life within a group; how to build friendships and relationships with other people.
You scored five goals at two FIFA World Cups but only one at the U-20 World Cup. Does that mean it’s easier to score at the World Cup?
(Laughs). Not at all. I was a little bit unlucky at the U-20 World Cup. I scored against Burundi, but I got injured in our second match and was on the sidelines for awhile. At the World Cups in France and Korea Republic, I was fit and in good form; hence more goals.
We’re chatting here in Lodz, Poland, at a stadium that will host ten matches, including the opening game and the final. As you look around, what do you think about the venue?
It really reminds me of Racing Santander’s stadium. It’s not particularly big but has been built in such a way that the fans are close to the pitch. So, I imagine that when the stadium is full, the atmosphere must be great, red-hot. As I look around now, I’m trying to put myself in the players’ shoes and think of the emotions they’ll experience stepping out onto that pitch. It must be great to play here.
As we’ve said, the tournament will take place here in Poland. What do you know about Polish football?
We don’t really follow the Polish league in Spain because we tend to watch the bigger leagues. Of course, we’re familiar with some of the most prominent Polish players who play abroad. Every football fan knows who Robert Lewandowski is. AC Milan’s Krzysztof Piatek has just come on the scene. There’s also Grzegorz Krychowiak who played for Sevilla before moving to France. Those are the names I associate with Poland, as well as Jerzy Dudek at Liverpool. Poland’s domestic leagues are not too high-profile in Europe, but you always have good players plying their trade in the top leagues. If I were a sporting director at a club, then Poland would certainly be one of my first destinations because you can find some really good young players here who can then go on and prove themselves in Europe.
Poland will be on home soil at this World Cup. Will that be a help or a hindrance?
Difficult question. On the one hand, the stadiums will be packed and it’s always great to play in front of your fans. However, expectations rise and so does the responsibility. I don’t know what expectations Poland have, but I guess their aim is to go as far as they can. Therefore, the players won’t only have to show great desire, but also maturity to handle and withstand the pressure that comes with being the host nation.
The footballing world knows you best of all for that legendary partnership you forged with Raul at Real Madrid. You also played alongside him in the U-20 national team. Do you think we could see the birth of a partnership just like yours? After all, the U-20 World Cup is a talent factory.
I think the word ‘factory’ is apt here. Having said that, we all know that many stars have broken through at the U-20 World Cup. We tend to just talk about individual players, but why can’t we see the emergence of a duo? It could be a pair of centre backs, midfielders or even strikers. The latter would be difficult though because these days you don’t often see teams play with two strikers. More often than not, teams set up with one out-and-out striker. So creating a Raul-Morientes type partnership is much more difficult nowadays.
If you had to choose the best footballer you played with, would it be Raul?
He would be at the top of the list, that’s for sure. However, I played with so many great players that I wouldn’t be able to just stop at one. I’d have to mention Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo. In terms of defenders, I played with Fernando Hierro and Roberto Carlos. I also played with Steven Gerrard in England, an unbelievable player.
Maybe a goalkeeper too?
Jerzy Dudek! And Iker Casillas, of course.
And finally, could you send a message to the young players who will be playing in Poland this summer and to the fans?
What I would say regarding this tournament is: enjoy the game. That’s the most important thing. You’re in the best possible shape at this age. Go out there and show it. The pressure will come later. In comparison to the senior World Cup, the pressure at the U-20 version is much less. The best thing to do is to try and leave this tournament with fond memories; just enjoy playing. It’s great that FIFA have set tickets prices at an affordable level. Therefore, I really encourage the Polish fans to get themselves to a game. As a coach myself, I love to watch young players, and if I have the time, then I’d really love to come along to a match. Besides, don’t forget that new stars will be born here. It would be amazing to be in the stands, wondering which of the players will become a superstar. Then, at some point, you’d be able to say, ‘I was there when that player made his breakthrough.’ From the fan’s point of view, it’s a super experience. The Polish fans have got an excellent opportunity to be part of something exceptional.