Young Spain squad makes World Cup debut against Costa Rica

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — A new era is about to start for Spain at the World Cup, with a generation of talented young players taking center stage in its quest to win a second world title.

Spain’s revamped squad, led by back-to-back Golden Boy award winners Pedri and Gavi, will begin being put to the test on Wednesday against an experienced Costa Rica team that is bringing back some of the players who helped it make a surprising run to the quarterfinals eight years ago.

The Costa Ricans hope to repeat the success of the World Cup in Brazil and avoid the debacle of four years ago in Russia, when they didn’t win any matches and were eliminated in the group stage.

Spain also wants to avoid a repeat of its campaign in the 2018 tournament, when it was ousted by the host country in the round of 16 after going through an embarrassing coaching change just days before its debut.

Many of the veterans from that tournament are gone, including Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, Andrés Iniesta and David Silva. Instead, coach Luis Enrique is betting on the likes of 19-year-old Pedri, 20-year-old Ansu Fati and Nico Williams, and 18-year-old Gavi, Spain's youngest ever goal scorer.

“I think it's very positive because young players bring to the team energy," Luis Enrique said Tuesday. “We try to manage that with the experience that we have as a staff and trying to get the best from every player.”

Spain enters the tournament in Qatar with the third-youngest squad among the 32 nations, with an average age of 25.3, after the United States and Ghana. More than half of the squad is 25 years old or younger, with six players at 20 or younger and playing in their first World Cup.

Pedri, Gavi and Ansu Fati are likely to start against Costa Rica. The other youngsters picked by Luis Enrique — who has joined in the youth movement by becoming a streamer during the World Cup — include Ferran Torres, Yéremy Pino, Eric García, Hugo Guillamón and Alejandro Balde.

“I think they are players who are important at their clubs, who already play in important European competitions,” said Busquets, one of the most veteran players in the squad along with Jordi Alba and César Azpilicueta. Busquets is the oldest at 34 and the only returning player from the Spain team that won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Luis Enrique said he should have all of his players available to play on Thursday, including veteran defender Dani Carvajal, who this week missed practice time because of the flu.

Costa Rica, playing in its third straight World Cup, is bringing back a few players from its historic campaign in 2014, when it was eliminated by the Netherlands in a penalty shootout in the last eight. Among them are a couple of players well known by the Spaniards — former Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas (who hasn't played with Paris Saint-Germain this season) and striker Joel Campbell, who played in the Spanish league with Villarreal and Real Betis.

“This group is very strong mentally and I have a good feeling about what it can do going forward,” Costa Rica's Colombian coach Luis Suárez said.

The squad also has midfielder Bryan Ruiz coming back from the 2014 team.

“We have very experienced players who can add a lot to the youngsters,” he said. “Both on and off the field.”

Costa Rica was the last team to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar after beating New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff in June. It couldn't play its final warmup for the World Cup against Iraq last week because of issues related to the entry of its players into Iraq.

Spain made it to the final of the Nations League and the semifinals of the European Championship last year. Its last major title came at Euro 2012. Earlier this year, it qualified for the Final Four of the Nations League for a second straight time.

Since the Nations League loss to France in October last year, Spain’s only defeat came against Switzerland in the Nations League in September.

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Associated Press writer Juan Zamorano contributed to this report.