If the hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid is leaving the rest of La Liga kneeling at the end of the proverbial table, waiting for crumbs, there is at least some reward for doing so.
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Many cite the stockpiling of young talent as an increasing ill in the modern game, but the big two have seemingly become aware of its corrosive effects. The Barça-El Real diaspora now stretches across the landscape of La Liga, and even beyond.
The fabled Catalan production line of La Masia is no more a secret than Barça’s overall brilliance, with Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Carles Puyol a walking advertisement for it. The academy’s generally accepted omnipotence often sees the merits of the capital’s youth development overlooked. As Fox Soccer’s Madrid correspondent Dermot Corrigan recently pointed out in this article for The Football Ramble, El Real’s counterpart La Fábrica has produced its fair share of quality.
The galáctico era that began the 21st century not only obscured the talent coming out of Valdebebas (the outer Madrid suburb where Real Madrid’s training complex resides), but also saw it denigrated. Carlos Queiroz, the coach who oversaw the post-Vicente del Bosque collapse in Los Merengues’ fortunes, was exhorted to integrate homegrown players but made it abundantly clear that he thought the vast majority didn’t cut the mustard.
The Portuguese certainly left no doubt what the club’s philosophy was, and what the team’s should be. The Zidanes y Pavónes model became one of the key phrases of Florentino Pérez’s first presidency, based on the integration of superstars and local products (Francisco ‘Paco’ Pavón was a cantera graduate who was part of Queiroz’s squad). Then-sporting director Emilio Butragueño explained the policy to this writer during a 2004 interview at the Bernabéu.
“When Ronaldo or Zidane comes here they have to understand what Real Madrid means (in terms of) observing the habits and customs of the club," he said.
"If we didn’t have the local players, it could be very difficult for us to explain everything to them. Raúl, (Iker) Casillas, Guti and now Pavón, (Raúl) Bravo, (Álvaro) Mejia – (to) all these players, Real Madrid is not only a football team, it’s part of their life.”
Behind the ideal, it was easy to assume a philosophy that made economic sense. As Sid Lowe pointed out at the time, the €150,000 (then $186,000) annual salaries of Pavón and Bravo neatly balanced out the estimated €6m ($7.44m) raked in by David Beckham, Luis Figo and company each year.
Queiroz had the thin end of the wedge. The club didn’t countenance laying out comparable sums on defenders, or players who weren’t ‘shirt-sellers’ (as they saw it), so he was left to make do with whatever quality was (or wasn’t) available.
A recent article by Spanish blog Fútbol Primera entitled ‘El otro clásico: Los peores canteranos de Real Madrid’ (‘The other clásico: Real Madrid’s worst academy products’), an XI was composed of what the site considered the worst players to come out of Madrid’s cantera in recent years. It was hard to make much of a counter-argument for any of the players involved, and it re-emphasized where Queiroz had come unstuck. The goalkeeper (Carlos Sánchez) and four defenders (Oscar Miñambres, Pavón, Bravo and Rúben) had all been part of the 2003/04 squad.
The article may have been lacking in any sort of charity, but it also underlined an enduring perception: La Fábrica can’t hold a candle to La Masia. Yet even during that supposedly fallow period, talent was being produced. The season that Queiroz was in charge also marked Álvaro Arbeloa’s first as a professional, in which he played regularly for the B side. Villarreal’s Spain midfielder Borja Valero made his C team debut in the same campaign.
Today, the academy can point to various alumni starring elsewhere in La Liga who tend to indicate that plenty of canteranos of quality is coming out, even if it struggles to make itself heard at the Bernabéu. The most obvious is perhaps the center forward who should by rights stand to most benefit from Fernando Torres’ current difficulties: Valencia’s Roberto Soldado.
Coming up through the ranks after joining La Fábrica at 14, Soldado was prolific with Castilla (Real Madrid B), his goals guiding the side to promotion to the Segunda A over four seasons in which he also made occasional appearances for the first team. A successful season’s loan at Osasuna was followed by non-playing frustration on the fringes of the first team, before he made a €4m ($5.25m) move to Getafe in summer 2008.
The link between El Real and Getafe, set on the southern outskirts of Madrid, has been a fruitful one. Dani Parejo, now a teammate of the highly successful Soldado at Valencia, spent a two-year spell at the club from 2009. Current El Real first-teamer Esteban Granero, the outstanding captain of Spain’s European Under-19 Championship-winning side in 2006, joined Getafe permanently shortly before Soldado arrived, having spent the previous year on loan at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez.
When the Bernabéu club sold Granero it included a buyback option, which it took up a year later. For both El Real and Barça, this has been an option used increasingly in recent years, recognizing either over-production, lack of sufficient opportunity or both. The perks are clear: short-term liquidity, the opportunity to develop talent competitively at other clubs’ time and expense, and the chance to either integrate the best at a later date, or to use them to generate funds.
Alvaro Negredo is a prime example of this. El Tiburón de Vallecas (‘The Shark of Vallecas’, the Madrid suburb from which Negredo hails) is not strictly a La Fábrica product, having coming up through the system of his local club, Rayo Vallecano, before joining Castilla just before his 20th birthday. Like Soldado, he was prolific but failed to appear for the first team and was sold to newly-promoted Almería in 2007.
When the buyback clause from Almería was exercised after two excellent seasons in Andalucía, it was clear that Negredo was collateral rather than a first-team contender at the Bernabéu. Accordingly, he became Sevilla’s record signing when he moved to the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán in 2009 for €15m ($19.7m) as Pérez’s second spell as president began with the mother of all spending sprees, one which saw Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Kaka among the arrivals. Again, El Real included a two-year buyback clause on Negredo, but it wasn’t invoked.
Barça has operated a similar policy, but arguably on a more risk-free basis. While the Bernabéu has been happy to see its products blooded domestically – and has occasionally been bitten, such as the occasion on which Parejo scored against his former employer in March 2010 – La Masia’s average might-still-be has gone abroad. In last summer’s transfer window alone Oriol Romeu (Chelsea), Bojan (Roma) and Jeffrén (Sporting Clube de Portugal) have gone to try their luck elsewhere, with Barça retaining a two-year option.
It’s a sensible policy to have evolved. Nationally and internationally, El Real have been able to see Juan Mata (a teammate of Negredo’s at Castilla) and Samuel Eto’o slip through the net having been on the books as teenagers, while Barça has all too recently gone to great expense in buying one of its own products back in Cesc Fábregas. The kids want to play, and will be allowed to for the benefit of the rest of La Liga – but only on the big two’s terms.