Continuity the secret of Spain's success
LATE on Friday night in the bowels of Chiajna Stadium situated on the outskirts of Bucharest, it took Spanish under 19 coach Ginés Meléndez just a few seconds to ponder a query on his nation's football trade secrets.
He had just overseen his team's 5-0 humbling of Ireland in the European Championship semi-final as Spain pursue a fifth title in nine years.
Should they succeed in defeating Czech Republic in tomorrow evening's final, the under 19 title will be added to the under 21 prize the nation claimed last month. In addition, their under 20s are amongst the favourites for the World Cup which kicked off in Colombia this weekend.
More importantly, Meléndez has been at the helm while a galaxy of talent, including Fernando Torres, Xavi and Iniesta, have graduated from the underage ranks to the highest stage of world football.
"The secret of Spain's success is due to the work by the Spanish football federation, specifically in certain regions around the country where they work hard to develop players," said the 61-year-old.
"It is important that they all have the same idea. For each of them, they are schooled in the same way from the time they are 15 up to the senior side. That never changes."
Observing the ease with which Spain serrated an Irish defence that had conceded just four goals in nine matches in the run-up to Friday provided an insight into those principles.
Spain's Real Sociedad midfielder Rubén Pardo might have risked some potential embarrassment by declaring pre-match that his team's style of "moving the ball from side to side, making spaces and not missing the goal" would be the difference but that was what unfolded in the five-goal drubbing.
Ireland's Joe Shaughnessy and his fellow defenders had been run ragged over the 90 minutes and the Aberdeen man couldn't help but admire the cutting edge they execute on the pitch.
"It's the way they pass the ball, the way they keep it from you, no matter how much you chase and harry them, they can always find the space to make a pass and do the right thing. They really are hard to play against," said Shaughnessy.
"They are brought up to play that way from a young age. They play this way at under 19 level and then carry on to the under 21s and the seniors and their clubs. They're just world-class, and it's a lesson for all young players in how to play the game."
But what is the FAI, albeit drawing from a vastly reduced player pool, doing to mirror the lauded Spanish system of hot-housing talent? Well, close to €1m is spent annually on the Emerging Talent Programme, a system whereby elite players receive specialist training once a week at regional centres around the country.
High performance director Wim Koevermans has put his stamp on the set-up by changing managers at every level, from under 15 to under 21, since his appointment three years ago. The Dutchman has responsibility for all of the underage teams under the FAI's umbrella and insists that they all operate a similar style.
"International football is all about playing from the back and you don't see the long ball at that level," said Koevermans. "Spain is the extreme example of how keeping the ball is important -- they are beyond Formula 1! Systems are not the vital aspect; it's the style."
The difference between the Spanish and Irish models occurs when players reach senior level. For all the value the 4-3-3 format common to the underage ranks brings to Irish players, it becomes redundant in Giovanni Trapattoni's rigid 4-4-2 approach.
Instilling a culture of play which stops at the highest level is alien amongst the world's elite nations, whether it be Brazil, Spain, Holland or even Germany. That disconnect wasn't the reason Ireland's young guns got a pasting in Bucharest but it certainly showed up the flaws within the system.
Sunday Indo Sport