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Denia hopes Spain can exorcise ghosts of '96

Spain assistant coach Santi Denia is still his nation's most-capped player at U21 level and is eager to see the current crop go one step further than he did in this competition.

Santi Denia (left) enjoys Under-19 success with coach Julen Lopetegui last year
Santi Denia (left) enjoys Under-19 success with coach Julen Lopetegui last year ©Sportsfile

Mimicking a wild animal lurking in the undergrowth, Santi Denia suddenly surges through a group of startled players, hunting a cross into the area which he meets at the far post to head past goalkeeper Diego Mariño.

It is the occasion of a Spain training game following the 1-0 Group B victory against Germany with which the holders secured their progress to the UEFA European Under-21 Championship semi-finals.

Assistant coach Denia appears to be enjoying these finals as much as, or even more than, those in which he competed as a player. The former Club Atlético de Madrid and Albacete Balompié central defender currently holds the honour of being Spain's most-capped player at Under-21 level thanks to his 27 appearances between 1992 and 1996.

That figure is under threat, however, with goalkeeper David de Gea three games away from drawing level with Denia, a feat the Manchester United FC No1 will achieve should Spain reach the final in Israel. Speaking to UEFA.com, the Spanish assistant coach looked back on his U21 career in which he himself dreamed of winning titles.

"I was fortunate enough to have competed at two European Championships and as the coaches back then had faith in me, I was able to rack up games," the 39-year-old explained. Indeed, achieving such a figure was somewhat harder to achieve during Denia's playing days, with only four teams qualifying for the U21 finals in that era. 

In France in 1994 and Spain two years later, Denia was a permanent fixture for La Rojita in the centre of defence and despite not winning either tournament, he draws favourable conclusions. "We were gaining a lot of experience during the group stages. I particularly remember having to go to Greece to secure our passage through to the finals before going on to lose [against Portugal] in the semis. In '96 we came up against a great power in Italy in the final which we lost on penalties."

In that second tournament – in which Denia was captain –  he had just played his part in Atlético's Liga and Copa del Rey double-winning season. Despite that club success, however, he still looks back with regret at losing out to Italy. "We just couldn't manage to win the tournament. It was an extraordinary occasion for a player to even reach that showpiece against a great Italy team," Julen Lopetegui’s right-hand man explained.

"I used to go to bed at night thinking of how we could have won, how I could have lifted the trophy as a representative of that group of players," he continued. "Lately [as a member of the coaching staff], when I see our Under-17s and Under-19s winning tournaments, I tell them that I too once dreamed of doing just that." 

This time around, Denia has the chance to realise a dream that he came so close to achieving 17 years ago. Should Spain be victorious, he will not be the first to lift the trophy but he would celebrate the win with as much enthusiasm as any of the players, the same enthusiasm he shows during coach Lopetegui's training-ground games.