FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Spain need to find middle path in Barcelona, Real Madrid's clashing styles of play
How far Spain go in the U-17 World Cup this year will rest on how well the two styles of football, Barcelona's tiki taka and Real Madrid's direct football, come together and forge a new identity for Spain.
World champions in 2010. Olympics gold medallists in 1992. Three-time European Championship winners. Four-time U-21 European champions. Six-time U-16 European champions. Three-time U-17 European champions. Two-time Futsal World Cup winners.
Spain's trophy cabinet may be filled to the brim, but there is one trophy that is glaringly missing: the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The Iberian nation has come within touching distance, but has fallen short on the last hurdle with runners-up finishes in 1991, 2003 and 2007.
Shockingly, the European heavyweights have not even qualified for the prestigious World Cup since 2009.
Current Spain coach Santi Denia is unequivocal when asked what his biggest challenge will be at the World Cup, which begins in India on 6 October.
“The biggest challenge for me will be to win the U-17 World Cup as we have never won the title. We'll give our best,” Denia told Firstpost on 7 July when he was in Mumbai for the World Cup draw.
Despite the odds facing his team, what Denia can draw comfort from is the fact that the team consist of players from the famed schools of Barcelona and Real Madrid. In fact, the Spanish team which won the UEFA U-17 Championship earlier this year had six players from Barca’s La Masia and five from Real’s academy.
However, as has been the case with most Spain teams, striking a middle path will be critical to the team’s future with both Spanish clubs playing distinctly different styles of football — while Barca favour the short-passing tiki-taka, Real’s football is more direct. These are not just two styles of playing football, these reflect the varied cultures which often clash to the point of overpowering the national team's identity.
The time just before Euro 2012 saw some of the most explosive confrontations between Real and Barca in El Clasicos, which threatened to derail the national team's chances at Euro 2012 months before the event even begun. Thankfully, calmer heads prevailed and the team
Denia agreed that the two academies had a big influence over his team, but said the national team would try and use the common thread to their advantage.
“It is clear that the academies of Real Madrid and Barcelona are doing a very good job. It's normal that the Spanish FA is trying to approach these players and that we have many players from Real Madrid and Barcelona. But we'll try to make a national team not influenced by the style of either club.
“But both teams like to have the ball. It's the kind of football Spanish FA want their teams to play, a style based on possession. We try and talk to players and make them understand that the national team is different to the club. This is our style and our kind of football,” said Denia, who interestingly was an Atletico Madrid player for many seasons.
Denia’s tactics have obviously worked, with the team coming into the tournament as the reigning champions of Europe, arguably the toughest confederation. What will also give them a morale boost is the exhilarating circumstances which led to them winning the title. In the UEFA final, they were trailing England by a goal with seconds left when they somehow found an equaliser before going on to snatch the match out of England's grasp in the shootout.
Their reward, however, is to be placed in a group with South American champions Brazil, apart from Africa’s Niger and Asia’s North Korea.
Denia admitted he was wary of the challenge the teams posed.
“It's such a strong group. We start with (a match against) Brazil and they're the best team in this age category. Then there are Niger and North Korea, who are also strong sides in this category,” Denia added.
What will add to the team’s woes is the conditions that the European team will face in India, come October.
“Since in Spain also it's almost as hot it is in India, they're prepared for the challenge ahead. They can manage it,” Denia said.
How far Spain go in the U-17 World Cup this year then will rest on how well the two styles of football, the two contrasting cultures, come together and forge a new identity for Spain.
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