ISTANBUL - Fresh from winning the Under-21 European Championship, Spain finds itself in familiar territory ahead of the Under-20 World Cup — as the favourite to win yet another title.
However, coach Julen Lopetegui tried to play down the expectations as his team prepared for its first match on Friday against the United States. He said his concern is getting past an American team that he praised for its tactics and physical style of play.
"We are only thinking about the next match," Lopetegui said. "The history or the future, we can't think about this. Our concentration is on tomorrow no more."
Billed as a tournament where future stars often emerge — after Diego Maradona starred in 1979, Luis Figo in 1991 and Lionel Messi in 2005 - it comprises six groups of four teams. The top two and the four best third-place teams advance to a knockout stage that begins July 2.
Group A is seen as the toughest, since it features Spain, the U.S., France and Ghana, all of which are capable of going far in the tournament.
Other teams tipped for the latter stages include Asian champion South Korea in Group B, South American champion Colombia in Group C and CONCACAF champion Mexico, which beat the U.S. in qualifying, in Group D. African champion Egypt is another candidate, from Group E.
Security has been stepped up at all seven sites following weeks of sometimes violent protests after riot police brutally cracked down on environmental activists who opposed plans to remove trees and develop Gezi Park in Istanbul. But the protests this week have given way to peaceful resistance and so far the protesters have not targeted the tournament.
Lopetegui said his team would bring Spain's trademark "tiki taka" style of short passes and controlled possession, which helped its Under-21s beat Italy earlier this week in the European Championship final. The senior side has used it to win the 2010 World Cup and two consecutive European championships, and is also a favourite to win the Confederations Cup which is underway in Brazil.
Spain's Under-20s will be brimming with confidence, having beaten another tournament contender Paraguay 3-1 in a warm-up after winning the Under-19 European championship. The team features Oliver who has been compared to Xavi Hernandez, as well as scoring threats Gerard Deulofeu and Jese Rodriguez — who was the top scorer at the Under-19 championship.
"The objective is to win, like every goal you set yourself in life," said Oliver, who plays for Atletico Madrid. "It goes without saying that we'll be taking it step by step, but we're not frightened of anyone. Nor do we think we're better than anyone. We are Spain and we need to go out and take the game to our rivals."
The Americans understand they are the underdogs but welcome the opportunity to play one of the favourites early on.
"Spain is sort setting the standard worldwide for soccer now," U.S. coach Tab Ramos said. "We're not going to be the ones to solve that problem and counter what they have been doing. We don't just look at Spain. We look at our group. When we qualified for the World Cup, you are always hoping you can play some of the best teams in the world. We got an opportunity to play three of them in our group and we welcome that challenge."
Ghana, one of three strong African teams along with Nigeria and Egypt, was on the same wavelength - particularly having won the tournament in 2009.
"It's my wish to win the cup a second time," said Ghana coach Sellas Tetteh, who coached that 2009 side. "Sometimes it depends on what almighty God decides. We will work very hard to attain that. I wish over the grace of God that things work very well for us to lift the cup a second time."
Brazil and Argentina — which have won eight out of the last 10 competitions — failed to qualify, leaving it to emerging power Colombia to try and earn South America another title. Colombia is looking for its first youth title and is well aware of the expectations back home.
"It puts a lot of responsibility on you when people say you're favourites, but it's out on the pitch where you have to show if it's justified or not," coach Carlos Restrepo said, ahead of the team's opener against Australia on Saturday.
England, meanwhile, will be looking to lift its fortunes when it opens against Iraq following a disappointing showing in the Under-21-European Championship. It was knocked out early, the latest setback for a youth program that has failed in past Under-20 World Cups. Its best finish was third, a decade ago.
"My expectations and the first thing we are looking to do is qualify for the next stage," said Peter Taylor, who took over as coach following a stint with the Bahrain national team. "Iraq are a very positive side and look to be very good at set pieces so we will have to be aware of that."