"We know we are going to have to use our heads and be clever," said Luis de la Fuente as his Spain side go in search of a third successive Under-19 title in Lithuania.
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Having taken up a coaching role with the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) last May, Luis de la Fuente – a Liga and Copa del Rey winner with Athletic Club – has been living "a unique experience" in charge of Spain's Under-19s. Elite round success was achieved with victories against Poland and Greece, and a draw aganst Croatia, but having qualified for the finals, De la Fuente told UEFA.com that the focus is very much on a third successive crown.
UEFA.com: What did you make of the elite round?
Luis de la Fuente: It was filled with emotion. We went into it well aware of its importance and significance as the prize at the end was getting to Lithuania. We were very focused. We performed to a very high level, produced a great campaign and reached the expectations we had of finishing top of our group and advancing.
UEFA.com: Patience was one of the keys to your success in qualifying; will it be the same at the finals?
De la Fuente: We know we are going to have to use our heads and be clever. We are competing against [teams] of a very high level. We are in a very strong group containing Portugal, the Netherlands and Lithuania. In this type of tournament the sides who commit the fewest errors while best demonstrating their strengths will be the ones who advance to the semi-finals and final. We will look to be solid, try not to make mistakes and play our brand of football.
UEFA.com: What are the qualities of the teams you will be facing in Group A?
De la Fuente: Teams that have come this far have demonstrated that they are at an exceptionally high level. We know that, in our group, the Netherlands and Portugal will be considered among the favourites to win the title. We are expecting very difficult matches. We are going to have to be at our best to overcome the challenges our rivals will set us.
UEFA.com: At this level, what is more important for the players: winning or learning?
De la Fuente: Both go together. We are talking about very young players. Everything they will experience at this tournament will form part of their futures as players at the top level. However, a part of this education is learning how to compete and to win. At the RFEF, we work within a structure that demands you always give the maximum respect to your opponents but that you always look to win.
UEFA.com: Is there a lot of pressure playing and coaching at this level?
De la Fuente: Pressure can be a great thing because we are working with the players of the future. We have a big responsibility, in that we have to train and shape them for that future by demanding the maximum. Pressure and responsibility are wonderful when you consider we are working with the best our country has to offer.
UEFA.com: How have you found working for the RFEF?
De la Fuente: It gives me huge pride to be a national coach, and that the federation gave me the opportunity to look after a team at such a high level is fantastic. This situation is completely different to anything I have ever lived through in the world of football.
UEFA.com: Have you been in touch with Julen Lopetegui, last year's victorious U19 coach and the man who led Spain to U21 glory in Israel last month?
De la Fuente: Of course. I've talked to him almost every day, and was doing so even when he was in Turkey [at the FIFA U-20 World Cup] via email and mobile. [All of the coaches] within the federation are colleagues and people you can consult with. We all form part of a group of coaches here with the man in charge, and with ultimate responsibility, being Ginés Meléndez.
UEFA.com: Who are the standout players in this Spain team?
De la Fuente: Out of respect for all of them, I wouldn't pick out individuals. They are all high-level players, some of whom have played in the first and second divisions in Spain and others who are well on their way to doing so. The most important thing is that they feel privileged to be here and that they realise they are lucky to have been chosen among a group of 18 out of a pool of very good Spanish players.