Even though he was little more than a teenager, it was Koke that Diego Simeone turned to over five years ago when he needed someone to set the tempo on the pitch. A Spain international since those teenage years and a permanent fixture in the senior national team since 2013, the young midfielder is nevertheless aware that he has yet to make quite the same weighty contribution for his country, as he does for his club, though all that is changing.

Discussing his new role in Julen Lopetegui’s Roja side, the great players who have gone before him and his idols in the game, Koke spoke exclusively to us ahead of Spain’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifier with Israel. Do not miss the video!

FIFA.com: Lopetegui has known you since your days in Spain’s youth teams. Is that an advantage?
Koke: He’s known us since we were little and it’s given not just me but a lot of people from the U-21 European Championship-winning generation the chance to be important players in the national team (Koke, David de Gea, Alvaro Morata and Isco are just some of the current internationals who formed part of the side that won the U-21 continental title in 2013). And it’s good that we’re picking up the baton because there’s a very good generation coming through. With the ones who are already here, who’ve won the lot practically, we can achieve some big things.

Spain have created quite a legacy with everything they’ve achieved in the last few years. How can you use that legacy as motivation for the future?
By thinking big and working hard. We know it’s going to be very difficult to match the achievements of the past when we won the European title, the World Cup and another European title. The generation that’s coming through has big dreams for the future, though, and above all they want to work really hard. And in the end, it’s hard work that’s going to bring us success.

Who are your role models as players?
When I was a little boy, I really liked Juninho at Atletico. Then, when I got older, Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta were the players for me. They were everything to me in the game and they still are. Just watching them play is a delight.

You’re now playing alongside Iniesta for Spain.
We all know the quality Andres has. He makes everything look so easy, but only he can do that. He’s an amazing player. When you don’t have a pass on, all you have to do is give it to him. You know he’s going to sort it all out and that he’s not going to lose it.

Spain and Italy are level on points at the top of their qualification group, with Israel a point behind. Will La Roja make it to Russia?
It’s a very competitive group, especially with Spain and Italy in it. And Israel are doing really well too. We’ve got a very important match coming up against the Israelis now and we have to come away with a result. It’s going to be very tight right up to the end. As we say at Atleti, it’s one match at a time. We know that anything can happen and that we can’t afford to slip up.

SOURCE: fifa.com/ Getty Images