Spanish defender Azpilicueta aims for success at the 3rd World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — César Azpilicueta is one of just six players with World Cup experience in Spain’s 26-man squad.

Several others, including teenagers Pedri González, Gavi Páez and Alejandro Balde, and 20-year-olds Ansu Fati, Yéremy Pino and Nico Williams, will be playing in the world’s biggest football tournament for the first time.

“I don’t know if we have an experienced team or a young one, each player has his role,” Azpilicueta said on Saturday after Spain held their first training session at their base camp at Qatar University. “People like me, we can share our experiences from one or more World Cups and bring in things that an 18 or 19-year-old player can’t do.”

Midfielder Sergio Busquets is the only remaining player from the group that led Spain to their lone World Cup title in South Africa 2010. Azpilicueta, a 33-year-old right-back, made his debut at the 2014 tournament when Spain were eliminated in the group stage.

Azpilicueta said he was impressed both by the “confidence” of players like 18-year-old Gavi, who holds records as Spain’s youngest player and youngest goalscorer, and by the big-game experience they already have.

“What surprises me the most is her daring, her way of playing and not being discouraged,” Azpilicueta said. “Players are starting earlier now, we can see it in their maturity and how they understand the game. Some (like Pedri) already have experience playing in a European Championship or a Nations League and will now be playing in a World Cup at the age of 19.”

Pedri, who excelled for Spain in last year’s European Championship semifinals, is likely to start alongside Gavi and 34-year-old Busquets in a pure Barcelona midfield. This will be Busquets’ fourth World Championship.

Azpilicueta had only played six games with the national team before starting as Vicente del Bosque’s right-back at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when Spain were the defending champions. But instead of helping the country continue their dominant run, which also included European titles in 2008 and 2012, Spain were eliminated after a 5-1 win over the Netherlands and a 2-0 loss to Chile.

He played just nine minutes at Euro 2016, when Spain reached the round of 16, and never left the bench at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, when Spain lost to the host team’s underdogs at the same stage.

But after not being included in Luis Enrique’s plans when he took over the team ahead of Euro 2020, he worked his way back into it. He lined up the squad for that tournament delayed by the pandemic, playing in four games as Spain fell a win short of reaching the Euro finals in London.

“In 2010 I was just a fan, and then my two World Cups didn’t go as I would have liked. Now we have a third chance,” said Azpilicueta, who has played 44 games for the national team. “I hope everything turns out alright.”

Azpilicueta will provide Luis Enrique with a solid, steady hand at right-back, especially when Spain face a strong attack. He will compete with Dani Carvajal and Marcos Llorente for game time.

Spain open Wednesday’s game against Costa Rica. Four-time champions Germany and Japan are also in Group E.

Qatar has been criticized for hosting the tournament, mainly for its human rights record but also for having to stage the World Cup during the traditional European season to avoid the Middle East heat.

Hector Bellerín, a Barcelona right-back who failed to make the national team, dedicated his acceptance speech for being named one of GQ Spain’s Men of the Year to Qatar’s choice as host country.

“Being here tonight means not being at the World Cup and not being with the national team. Not being part of that makes me sad. But on the other hand I’m happy,” said Bellerín on Friday in Madrid to applause. “I don’t know if I can be happy about the burden of 6,500 deaths in the construction process for the World Cup.

“People from countries like Pakistan or Bangladesh, the majority men between 30 and 40, who only wanted a dignified and respectable life for themselves and their families. Football serves as a mirror for society, for its greed, its selfishness.”

As for the weather in Qatar, which is still warm even in November, Azpilicueta said it wasn’t a problem.

“A bit of sun and a bit of warmth?” said the Chelsea player. “I’m from London, so I can’t complain.”

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports



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