As Spain's international team prepare for their final World Cup qualifying match on Tuesday, in the knowledge that a point against Georgia will guarantee them a spot in Brazil, the nation's most talented youngsters are preparing for a different challenge.
Halfway through their own qualification campaign for the UEFA Euro Under-21 tournament to be held in Czech Republic in 2015, Spain's under-21 side overcame their Hungarian counterparts by a 1-0 scoreline.
While victory in the game is of course a target for those involved, the longer-term aim is to make these youngsters capable of stepping into the biggest shoes of all: replacing the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol, David Villa and so on—World Cup winners all, yet soon enough to come to the end of their playing days at international level.
Progression Through the Levels
The first, and perhaps most important, step to acknowledge is that there is a path open to players to progress through the national team set-up. In this most recent Spain squad, Real Madrid youngster Isco has made the step up from under-21, whom he represented so admirably during the summer, to full senior international.
He actually made his debut earlier in 2013—in a friendly against Uruguay. The current pair of fixtures, however, are competitive, important, real. These ones matter, and Isco has been called upon to provide his nation with another option to ensure they win.
Koke and Alberto Moreno were also part of Spain's successful side at the 2013 UEFA European Under-21 Championships which took place over the summer. They, too, have made the step up to inclusion in the senior squad.
Look further down the ranks and the same progression is apparent; Suso, Gerard Deulofeu, Oliver Torres and Jose Campana were all part of Spain's squad at the 2013 FIFA Under-20 World Cup this summer.
All four featured on Monday night in Spain's win over Hungary at under-21 level.
Quality of Facilities, Succession of Challenges
To aid in this progression through the ranks of the Spain squad, a number of key factors are maintained as constants for the Spanish Football Federation.
First and foremost, the coaches of the country who are involved at professional level are, to be blunt, professional.
The nation is host to more than 12,000 coaches who have gained UEFA "A"-level qualification and more than 2,000 at UEFA "Pro" licence level. Those numbers far exceed both England and Germany. Coaching standards are high, emphasis on player ability as well as mentality is high, and they are demanding, on and off the field.
An international player's timetable is rigorously set out, and he is expected to stick to it while representing his nation, no matter whether in the senior squad or the under-20s.
In Spain, unlike many other countries, the national teams do not have one "home ground."
The national team have played their qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup in Madrid, Mallorca, Gijon and Albacete. Similarly, the under-21s are getting a grounding in touring the country, becoming accustomed to playing in different settings, different arenas, in front of different crowds.
For their doubleheader against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Hungary in the region of Murcia, they trained at the brand-new Pinatar Arena football centre, which has hosted the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Almeria, Real Valladolid and the Spanish international women's team.
Such high-class facilities are not only expected for the nation's best budding talent, but also actively encouraged.
The two games took place at professional stadiums—Real Murcia and Cartagena—around a 30-minute drive from their training base, giving the younger players as close to an exact replica of the situation faced at senior international level as possible.
While not all new senior internationals arrive fresh off the press from the under-21s—newly capped forward Michu being the best example—there is no doubt that turning promising youngsters into fully fledged world-class athletes is the best route to sustained glory.
It's also one of the hardest steps to take in football.
Just as, at club level, many talented reserve players do not take that final step to becoming a first-team player, so do many youthful prospects fail to turn a dozen under-21 caps into a single senior one.
Aside from sustaining technical growth, the ages of 18-21 are recognised as those where tactical improvement must also take place exponentially, while physical growth occurs as a natural course of events.
But what about the mental challenge? How do a nation's best youngsters manage to cope with the pressure that Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas place on them? The successes of these players, with more than 100 caps apiece, instantly mean that fans the length and breadth of the country expect youngsters to tread the same path to glory.
The under-21s might have tasted success at the Euros during the summer, but there was surprise and even disappointment in some quarters when the under-20s were eliminated at their World Cup at the quarterfinal stage.
Speaking directly with midfielder Suso prior to that summer tournament, he acknowledged the additional pressure was not created by the youngsters themselves, but should serve to inspire them nonetheless:
"As I said before, Spain are the favourites and they're always going to have that expectation as favourites. In Spain, I think we have more pressure than other nations. The senior side is winning everything, they're the best side there is, and when that happens then so does this [the expectation], in all the big clubs and in this case, at international level. I don't think it should be any hardship or any work, instead it should serve as a motivation."
He also spoke about the importance of getting regular game time, something which his parent club, Liverpool, have looked to ensure by loaning him to Almeria this season.
Suso is far from the only player to face that challenge this season.
Deulofeu is on loan at Everton, Carles Gil at Elche and Saul Niguez at Rayo Vallecano. The pursuit of regular first-team football is something which can aid the players' growth, their sense of worth and comfort within unfamiliar team surroundings—also vital for that first step up at international level—and, of course, proves that they can showcase their talent on a regular basis.
Next in Line?
And so to the ultimate aim of youth international football: to determine exactly who might be next to follow Isco and Koke and seal their place down the line in the senior set-up.
Alvaro Morata, winning-goal hero of both recent under-21 games, is a candidate. A regular squad player for Real Madrid, if he progresses as club and country hope to become a regular starter for the Spanish giants, his place in the senior squad is almost assured.
Few Spanish players play week in, week out for Real Madrid and do not make the international team.
Iker Muniain has been a class apart for several seasons already, despite a dip in form last term, and will certainly go on to make his mark at full senior level. Dani Carvajal will follow, given time, while a whole host of other talents can hope to make the step up.
Suso continues to shine domestically and plays a central role already for the under-21s, while Deulofeu and Jese Rodriguez have talent aplenty. Both have much to prove on a regular basis to make it at Barcelona and Real, respectively, but the ability is certainly there.
Are these players international class? Are they World Cup-winning class?
It's too early to say, but the coaching they receive, the facilities on offer to them and the backing of major clubs all over Europe will all certainly give them every opportunity.
After that, application, desire, quality and luck will all play a part—and some might say, given the timing of these boys in showing themselves almost ready to play for the most talented footballing nation on the planet, they've already been awarded plenty of the latter.
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