Few people with even a passing interest in football will need reminding of the excellence of Barcelona’s La Masia academy, which in recent years has provided players such as Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcántara etc etc for their all-conquering senior side. A favourite pastime of many Barca fans is compare their own club’s breeding ground / finishing school / first scientifically verifiable evidence of alchemy working properly with Madrid’s useless Fábrica which rarely turns out anything of value. This is especially true in weeks such as this one, when the relative squad depth of the two clubs comes under the microscope and Barca win out.
Slagging off Madrid’s youth system is easy, but not really very fair. You can actually put together a pretty decent team of Fábrica products currently playing top flight football in Spain and other top European leagues. A first choice XI of players who were on Madrid books as youngsters could be… Iker Casillas (Madrid); Álvaro Arbeloa (Madrid), Rubén González (Osasuna), Adrián (Racing), Filipe Luis (Atlético); Borja Valero (Villarreal), Javi García (Benfica); Juan Mata (Chelsea), Roberto Soldado (Valencia), José Callejón (Madrid); Álvaro Negredo (Sevilla). The subs could be Diego Alves (Villarreal), Esteban Granero (Madrid), Luis García (Zaragoza), Rodrigo (Benfica), Juanfran (Atlético) and Jurado (Schalke). And that’s not counting Raul (also Schalke) and Guti (currently unattached after up and down spell in Turkey with Besiktas).
Okay the defence is a bit weak looking (although there’s no place for Hamit Altintop or Ricardo Carvalho, so it could be worse), but with such attacking power the team should easily be good enough to claim a Champions League qualifying spot in this year’s Primera División. There’s also room for improvement, with many of the better players still in their early or mid twenties. I count eight Spanish internationals (including three World Cup winners), and of the others eight more have Champions League experience. Top it up with a few superstars like Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo and throw in some of Madrid’s most promising current youngsters such as Daniel Carvajal and Nacho and you’d have a squad at least as good as Mourinho’s current one.
There are many reasons why this make-believe squad is now so scattered. No manager at the club in the last decade - or longer - has had the time or boardroom backing to put down roots and start to build something. Wannabe presidents tend to need promises of big money signings to get elected, and then to they seem to always enjoy welcoming an array of galacticos to the club. International superstars at least sometimes provide a return on investment for the club through jerseys and other merchandise sold, while moving on a few youngsters each year keeps revenue coming in without appreciably weakening the first team.
It’s perhaps not fair to blame everything on the likes of Florentino Pérez and José Mourinho (no matter how much fun it be). The ordinary Bernabéu rank and file should also take their share of the blame for the lack of success of youth teamers at Madrid. They are the ones who vote for the president, so even allowing for the convoluted nature of the system they are at least a bit responsible for the way the club is run. Also, at most clubs fans encourage homegrown talent and take particular pride in seeing local lads come good. Many within Madrid’s regular home crowd lack patience with young players and actually demand big name signings.
“In my day the cantera at Real Madrid was marvellous,” Osasuna’s Ruben said in an interview last year. “The big problem is the Madrid fans and their lack of patience. It is easier to sign a famous player than bring one through, there is no patience to put in a lad in the Primera División and give him a year. In the Bernabéu, if after 15 minutes he does something wrong, they are already whistling and you never get to step onto the pitch again. That is why Madrid’s cantera does not work, and will not work unless something changes.”
Whatever its origins, Madrid’s policy has been to sell promising youngsters who do not impress immediately in the first team (i.e. everyone except Casillas) and include clauses so they can buy them back should they prove themselves at Primera División level. Of the current squad, Granero and Callejón were successes at Getafe and Espanyol respectively, before returning to the Bernabéu to mixed effect. Mourinho does not seem to rate Granero, but Callejón has settled back in well and has 10 goals already this season, including the late winner last week at Mallorca. Madrid also got Arbeloa back via Deportivo and Liverpool without having to break the bank.
This approach was less successful when Mata and Soldado left the club very young, and in the cases of Negredo and Rodrigo other transfer considerations scuppered the chance of a return. But it’s fair to argue that, despite all the above complicating factors, the club’s youth scouting and coaching has not done as badly many make out. There are currently more than 30 former Madrid youngsters playing at 13 different La Liga teams. Nippy teenage attackers Pablo Sarabia at Getafe and Juan Carlos at Zaragoza are among those who may come back to the Bernabéu should they develop as hoped. On balance, the Barca way is clearly the better route to success, but it’s still not really fair to fault the Fábrica.
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish freelance writer living in Madrid and writing about football at Sport 360, Fox Soccer, When Saturday Comes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.