Spain’s dominance of international football may have been brought to an end in Brazil in 2014 after Vicente del Bosque’s men surrendered their world title with a whimper, but let’s not forget that they dominated it the decade beforehand.
Although they had previously acquired an unflattering nearly men reputation for the majority of their history, the European nation have always had an abundance of talent within their ranks, but converting it into success on the big-stage proved to be problematic.
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The Spaniards finally sorted themselves out and threw down their shackles at Euro 2008 to prove that they weren’t bottlers. Success in South Africa followed and the nation retained their European title in 2012 too.
But it wasn’t just the senior side that started to see a shift towards success rather than failure. The nation’s decision to roll out a unique brand of football, and mirror a style of play throughout each and every youth side, quickly came to fruition.
A year after La Furia Roja had claimed the biggest prize of all at Soccer City in Johannesburg, just over 16,000 spectators filed into Denmark’s Aarhus Stadion to see Spain’s Under-21 side beat Switzerland courtesy of a 2-0 scoreline to be crowned European champions.
The side was littered with talent, but have they gone on to make the step-up to the seniors, or have their careers stagnated? It’s a bit of both.
Manager: Luis Milla
The former defensive midfielder, who represented Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia during his playing career, retired in 2001 and began his career in management five years later. He took charge of minnows UD Pucol before going on to become assistant boss to Michael Laudrup at Getafe.
Milla made his mark at international level, taking charge of Spain’s Under-19, 20, 21 and 23 sides, but since then he’s managed UAE outfit Al Jazira Club and Segunda Division sides Lugo and Zaragoza before taking on the Indonesia national team job, which he left in 2018.
Goalkeeper: David De Gea
The goalkeeper made his debut for Atletico Madrid in 2009, and went on to establish himself as first-choice ahead of compatriot Sergio Asenjo at the Vicente Calderon.
He’d attracted a fair amount of interest before the tournament, but his performances during it clearly convinced Sir Alex Ferguson that the spindly shot-stopper was a man he couldn’t miss out on.
Two weeks after the final, De Gea joined Manchester United for £18.9m. After initially struggling to cope with the physicality of the English game, he became one of the world’s top goalkeepers, despite a tough few years.
Right-back: Martin Montoya
The right-back began his career at CF Gava before moving to Barcelona’s famous La Masia youth academy at the age of eight. Montoya moved through the ranks and enjoyed a breakthrough season in the B side, as Luis Enrique led them to the title in Spain’s second division.
A full debut arrived in 2011, but the defender struggled to establish himself as a regular. Spells in the reserves had been difficult to endure, as were a string of injury problems, including a broken clavicle.
The 29-year-old moved on loan to Serie A side Inter Milan and La Liga rivals Real Betis in a bid to revive his career, before joining Valencia on a four-year deal in the summer of 2016. He spent two productive seasons at the Mestalla and now plies his trade back at Real Betis after spending a few seasons in the Premier League with Brighton.
Centre-back: Alberto Botia
The central defender spent three years in Barcelona’s youth system before making the step-up to the B team at the Camp Nou. However, his efforts culminated in a solitary appearance for the Catalan club and he joined Sporting Gijon on a permanent basis in 2010 following a successful loan spell with the Rojiblancos.
A two-year stint with Sevilla proved to be his final involvement in his homeland to date, as he’s currently plying his trade with Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Wehda Club. At 32 years of age, a career with the elite appears to have passed him by.
Centre-back: Alvaro Dominguez
The centre-back began his youth career with Real Madrid but switched to Atletico in 2001. Seven years later he made his first-team debut and went on to establish himself as a key member of the side that secured two Europa League titles in 2010 and 2012.
Following the second triumph, which was secured under Diego Simeone, he joined Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach. However, after being unable to overcome a number of severe back injuries, he retired from football in December 2016 at the age of 27.
Dominguez earned two senior international caps for Spain before hanging up his boots.
Left-back: Didac Vila
Vila joined his local side RCD Espanyol as a youngster and was handed his full debut by Mauricio Pochettino in 2010. His debut season culminated in several solid performances, but he missed the majority of the following campaign due to injury.
Italian outfit AC Milan were suitably impressed, and he joined the San Siro side in January 2011, a couple of months before the Under-21 European Championships. He was an ever-present throughout Spain’s campaign, which was a lot more football than he managed in Milan.
He’s no longer on their books, after making just one competitive appearance. Spells on loan with former club Espanyol and Real Betis helped him regain form, as did playing on loan at Eibar. He has once again returned to Espanyol after a brief stint with AEK Athens.
Vila provided a superb cross for Spain’s opening goal in the 2011 final.
Centre midfield: Javi Martinez (Captain)
The dynamic midfielder had been included in Spain’s senior squad for the 2010 World Cup the season beforehand but didn’t dodge the opportunity to drop back into a younger age group.
In fact, he thrived on it. Handed the captain’s armband, his meticulously measured and robust displays allowed the talent further ahead of him to work their magic.
He became a lynch-pin in Athletic Club’s midfield prior to a big £31.6m move to Bayern Munich in 2012, which made him the most expensive signing in Bundesliga history before Corentin Tolisso joined Bayern Munich for £35m in June 2017.
However, a serious knee ligament injury restricted his progress at the Allianz Arena during his earlier days at the club. He has been a reliable outlet when called upon, but competition for places means that he’s only won 18 senior caps for Spain.
Right wing: Juan Mata
The mercurial midfielder won the Player of the Tournament award courtesy of a handful of mesmerising displays. His movement and technique was a sight to behold, and somewhat frightening given how far ahead he was of the majority of the youngsters that travelled to Denmark.
But Mata is a special player. He was the only other member of the 2011 Under-21 side that had played a part in the 2010 World Cup triumph, along with Martinez.
He signed for Chelsea from Valencia less than a month after the final in 2011 for £23.5m and was worth every penny. He became a key member of the Blues’ side, providing the assist for Didier Drogba’s header in the 2012 Champions League final triumph and also winning the Europa League, until Jose Mourinho turned up and doubted his work ethic.
Mata was shipped off to Manchester United in January 2014 and initially struggled there too. The Spaniard has since been a valuable player for the club over the years, and usually puts in a shift when called upon.
Centre midfield: Thiago Alcantara
The Italian-born midfielder was ahead of his time in 2011. He scored a cheeky lob to put the result beyond doubt and was back to help Spain retain their Under-21 title in 2013 at the expense of the country of his birth.
He’s since declared his allegiance to Spain at senior level, and played for Barcelona for four years. Yet, while his brother Rafinha remains a Barcelona player, Thiago completed a move to Bayern Munich in 2013.
Debate had raged regarding which Catalan player Pep Guardiola would choose to take to Germany with him, and Thiago was a superb choice. The Spaniard won numerous prizes in Bavaria before leaving for Liverpool last summer.
Attacking midfield: Ander Herrera
Herrera started his career at Real Zaragoza and helped the club reclaim their place in Spain’s top tier. He also ensured that Zaragoza retained their La Liga status a year later.
His performances piqued the interest of home-town club Athletic Club, and he signed for the Basque outfit in February 2011. He quietly established himself in the heart of Bilbao’s midfield and was a key figure in their progress to both the Copa del Rey and Europa League finals.
Manchester United made several attempts to sign Herrera, and finally got their man in 2014 for a fee in the region of £29m. Many baulked at such a huge sum for a man that “didn’t have a senior cap for Spain”, but he proved his worth at United, before securing a lucrative deal with PSG last summer – where he won a domestic treble albeit in an injury-hit campaign.
Left wing: Iker Muniain
When you realise that Muniain is still just 28 years of age, it highlights the fact that him starting the final back in 2011 for the Under-21 side was an achievement in itself
The left winger is a product of Athletic Club’s youth system, and made his full international debut in February 2012. He’s been a near ever-present for his side despite suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury back in 2015, and has made over 400 appearances for the Basque club.
Striker: Adrian Lopez
The striker turned heads with Real Oviedo in Spain’s second tier as a youngster and was snapped up by Deportivo La Coruna courtesy of a compensation package in 2006.
He went on to establish himself as a regular but, just over a month after his goals helped Spain claim the European Championship in 2011, he joined Atlético Madrid on a free transfer. That’s loyalty for you.
Adrian soon established himself at Atleti ahead of José Antonio Reyes and scored the first goal for Diego Simeone’s side against Chelsea in the semi-final stage of the Champions League at Stamford Bridge in the 2013/14 season. He also came on for an injured Diego Costa in the final against Real Madrid.
He signed for Porto in 2014, before being sent on loan to Villarreal the following season and then again during the 2016/17 campaign. He now plays for Osasuna, signing a two-year deal in 2019.
The Venezuelan-born midfielder represented several Spanish youth sides, but failed to step-up to the first-team fold. He progressed through Barcelona’s youth ranks, however, a lack of game time saw him join Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon in 2011.
Four years later he returned to La Liga with Real Valladolid, but has since signed for Belgian Second Division side K.A.S. Eupen in 2015 and gone on to play for Grasshoppers, AEK Larnaca and now Slaven Belupo in Croatia. Some fall from grace for a man who scored Barcelona’s fifth and final goal in the 5-0 mauling of Real Madrid in 2010.
Jeffren has also been capped at senior level for Venezuela, accumulating four caps for the South American nation.
The central midfielder, like so many of his countryman, was picked up by Real Madrid’s youth system. Unfortunately, like so many of his countryman, he didn’t quite make the cut at the Bernabeu.
He spent a season on loan with Championship side Queens Park Rangers, signed for Getafe in 2009 and then joined Valencia in 2011. Parejo would spend nine years at Valencia, becoming a big part of the club’s identity as captain, scoring 65 goals in 381 appearances. However, that ended in 2020 when Parejo was allowed to join local rivals Villarreal on a free transfer, with Valencia going through a strange period, also selling Ferran Torres and Francis Coquelin.
The left winger forged his reputation with Sevilla, making over 100 appearances for the Andalusian outfit during a seven-year spell. Mooted to be on the radar of Tottenham Hotspur at one point, a move failed to materialise and he joined Sporting Lisbon in 2011.
Then, in August 2015, he signed for Serie A side Genoa after struggling for game time in Portugal before moving to Anderlecht in the summer of 2016.
He returned briefly to ply his trade in Spanish football once again, signing for Segunda Division side Extremadura in 2018, before joining Maltese club Birkirkara.
He won two senior Spain caps back in 2008. There won’t be any more for the 33-year-old.