Spain favorite as Under-20 World Cup set to begin

Updated: June 20, 2013, 5:26 PM ET
Associated Press

ISTANBUL -- Fresh from winning the Under-21 European Championship, Spain finds itself in familiar territory entering the Under-20 World Cup -- the favorite for yet another title.

Coach Julen Lopetegui, however, is trying to play down the expectations as his team prepared for its opening match Friday against the United States. His concern is getting past an American team he praises for its tactics and physical style.

"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."

The Americans understand they are the underdogs but welcome the opportunity to play one of the favorites 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."

The tournament is billed as one where future stars often emerge -Diego Maradona in 1979, Luis Figo in 1991 and Lionel Messi in 2005 -- and consists of 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 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 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 favorite to win the Confederations Cup, which has begun in Brazil.

Spain's Under-20s also beat tournament contender Paraguay 3-1 in a warmup 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."

Ghana, the tournament winner in 2009, is one of three strong African teams along with Nigeria and Egypt. Brazil and Argentina have won eight out of the last 10 competitions but failed to qualify. An emerging Colombia will try to win another title for South America.

England opens against Iraq following a disappointing showing in the Under-21-European Championship. It was the latest setback for a youth program whose best finish in the Under-20 World Cup was third a decade ago.

Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press

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