With his powerful bursts down the right flank, fighting spirit and invaluable leadership, Argentine youngster Pablo Zabaleta is every coach's dream.
The blond midfielder, still only 21, has already accumulated a wealth of valuable experience and plans to break into Jose Pekerman's squad for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, having worked with the national team coach previously at youth level.
Born in Buenos Aires in January 1985, Zabaleta's mental strength has been the key to his success, as he showed in overcoming the death of his mother in 2000 to earn a place in the youth ranks at Argentine side San Lorenzo. Lining up against the mighty Boca Juniors on his first division debut in January 2003, Zabaleta refused to be overawed and won the man-of-the-match award despite his team's 2-1 defeat
However, in recent years it has been in the blue and white of Argentina that the young midfielder has really made his mark, representing his country at several South American youth tournaments, one FIFA U-17 World Championship and two FIFA World Youth Championships.
Albiceleste to the core
The FIFA U-17 World Championship in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001 was Zabaleta's first big test at international level and he did not disappoint, helping Hugo Tocalli's side to a fourth-placed finish and even weighing in with a goal. Zabaleta reached even greater heights in 2003 with his side winning the South American U-20 Championship, before clinching another fourth place at that year's FIFA World Youth Championship in the United Arab Emirates.
Zabaleta's achievements last year underlined why he is so highly rated. By now firmly established as a key figure in the San Lorenzo first team, the right-sided midfielder was given the captaincy of his country's U-20s and the responsibility of leading a revamped team at the FIFA World Youth Championship. Alongside the likes of Barcelona starlet Lionel Messi, Zabaleta led his team to victory over Nigeria in the final, scoring a series of vital goals along the way, including the winner against arch-rivals Brazil.
His team-mate Messi, a player many feel will be critical to Argentina's chances at Germany 2006, had this to say about Zabaleta's role in their success in the Netherlands last summer: "He's a great captain. He made sure everyone was OK, liased with the coach and the doctor, and geed us up when we were losing. He's a really positive leader, whose opinion we all respect."
Dreaming of Germany
Not only did Zabaleta's performances on Dutch soil earn him a four million euro move to Spanish side Espanyol, it also led to his senior team debut under the watchful eye of Pekerman. That first cap came on 17 August against Hungary, on the same night that saw Messi receive his marching orders just moments after coming on for his debut as a substitute.
Days later both played in Argentina's FIFA World Cup qualifier against Paraguay. Asked recently whether there was too much being expected of young players like him, Zabaleta's reply was unequivocal: "There comes a time when you stop thinking of yourself as a youngster. In our case, we've already played a lot of games and we've made our debut for the full national side. We're not boys any more and we're living in a grown-up environment."
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The next step on the ladder for the ambitious youngster would be a place in the Albiceleste squad for Germany 2006. Having already racked up more than 30 appearances and hit two goals for his new side, there are those who consider him to be a viable alternative to Inter Milan's Javier Zanetti.
"There's no need to get carried away. At the moment I'm totally focused on playing well for my club and staying in the international frame. That said, I'd be lying if I said I didn't care (about Germany). I'd love to be in the final 23." Given his track record, you would be foolish to bet against him.