When it comes to the playing staff, signings are a great way to improve the squad, both in terms of quality and depth, and indeed, are becoming the most common way. However, onlookers, especially fans of a club tend to derive great joy when a product of the club’s academy makes it through to the first team, and gains importance in it. With this in mind, we will look at some of the best youth academies across the world of football.
This, the third part, celebrates the fine graduates of the incredible football school that is Southampton’s academy.
Atlético Madrid is starting to develop into one of Europe’s biggest clubs having enjoyed success in the past few years, most notably their La Liga winning 13/14 season and their UEFA Europa League and Super Cup double in 2012. The Madrid-based club has also got a new stadium under construction and is planning to move by the end of the 15/16 season. A large part of Atlético’s recent success is their “cantera” or youth academy. Producing some of the finest talents from Spain whilst intergrating young foreign talent into the team has helped Atlético build a sustainable and profitable platform for their future.
It hasn’t always been easy for Atlético’s cantera as back in 1992 owner at the time Jesús Gil y Gil decided to close down the academy as he thought it was a waste of money, meaning some of Spain’s finest players were released for free. The academy was reopened a few years later and has ever since been one of the finest academies in Europe producing some of Spain’s best talent.
The Atlético B team currently plays in the fourth tier of football in Spain and is usually used as a stepping stone between the academy and the first team. Players usually stay in the B team for roughly two years to gain experience in a more competitive and physical league before progressing to the first team or gaining a loan to a team in a higher division. This system has seen the likes of Koke, Gabi and David de Gea develop in recent years.
10 BEST PRODUCTS
Note that these are players who have played professional football in and after 2000.
RAUL // SENIOR DEBUT: 1994
It may come as a surprise to football fans that the iconic Real Madrid legend actually started his career at city rivals Atlético. Raúl was a part of the youth team that was unfortunately disbanded by Jesús Gil y Gil in 1992. Real Madrid came in for the young striker and he went on to have a successful career with Los Blancos winning 16 trophies including three Champions League medals and six La Liga medals. He also went on to score a whooping 323 goals for Real Madrid breaking the record of the most goals scored for Real Madrid at the time. Raúl currently holds the record for the most appearances for Real Madrid and will always be remembered as an El Galatico.
DAVID DE GEA // SENIOR DEBUT: 2009
The current Manchester United number one started his career back at the age of 13 when he joined Atlético Madrid. Rising through the cantera, David De Gea was given his first team debut at the age of 18 when goalkeeper Roberto came off injured in a Champions League fixture against Porto back in 2009. Three days later De Gea made his La Liga debut for Los Rojiblanclos against Real Zaragoza. De Gea started in the Europa League final match for Atlético against Fulham, the Madrid club came out victorious and a year later De Gea made his move from Madrid to Manchester breaking the British record fee for a goalkeeper. He has gone on to win the Premier League twice for the Red Devils.
FERNANDO TORRES // SENIOR DEBUT: 2001
Starting his career as a goalkeeper, Fernando Torres moved to the striker position when he was seven. Torres joined the Altético cantera back in 1995 when he was 11, and he signed his first professional contract for the club when he was 15. He made his debut for the club at the age of 17 against CD Leganés, and a week later he got his first goal for the club against Albacete Balompié, earning the nickname “El Niño” which means “The Kid” in Spanish, Torres became the poster boy for the new Atlético Madrid team that earned promotion back into the La Liga. Torres later went on to join Merseyside club Liverpool FC and then eventually Chelsea FC where he went on to win the Champions League with the club in 2012. Torres was a big part of the famous Spanish side that won two European Championships and one World Cup between 2008 to 2012. He later returned to Atlético Madrid in January 2015.
KOKE // SENIOR DEBUT: 2009
Joining the youth team when he was just eight, Koke made his debut for his boyhood club when he was 17 in a 5-2 loss against FC Barcelona back in 2009. The versatile midfielder was slowly integrated into Diego Simeone’s first team and at the age of 21 Koke made his 100th appearance for the club. He was also a starter for the famous Atlético Madrid team that won the La Liga and reached the Champions League final in the 13/14 season. Koke also has two Europa Leagues, two Super Cups and one Copa del Rey to his name despite only turning 23 this year. Winning the European Under-21 Championship with Spain back in 2013, Koke has now become a regular inclusion in the first team and with an aging midfield he will likely be a starter within a few years.
ALVARO MORATA // SENIOR DEBUT: 2010
Just like Raúl, this former Real Madrid striker, actually started in Atlético Madrid’s youth academy back in 2005. Álvaro Morata was at Atlético for a few years, but decided to leave as he fell down in the pecking order, he decided to join Getafe CF before eventually joining Real Madrid. Being behind Karim Benzema at Real Madrid, Morata never really got a run of successful games so he decided to leave to join Turin-based club Juventus FC. Morata is now finally showing his true ability that lead to some people calling him the heir to Fernando Morientes. Despite struggling to find first team football, Morata holds an impressive trophy cabinet that includes; Champions League, La Liga, Copa del Rey, Serie A and Coppa Italia medals.
GABI // SENIOR DEBUT: 2004
Born in Madrid, Gabi joined Atlético Madrid was he was a young boy. Progressing through the cantera and then through the Atlético B team, Gabi made his debut for the first team in February 2004 against Valencia CF at the Mestalla Stadium. In early 2007 Gabi was sold to Real Zaragoza for €9 million, unfortunately for Gabi, Real Zaragoza were relegated to the Segunda División that season, Immediately bouncing back to La Liga. Just four years after selling him, Atlético decided to buy back their former player from Real Zaragoza. At the start of the 12/13 season manager Diego Simeone decided to elect Gabi as club captain. Gabi went on to lead his team to Copa del Rey victory that season and a year later he led his team to their first La Liga title since 1996.
MARIO SUAREZ // SENIOR DEBUT: 2005
Joining the Atlético Madrid cantera in 1999, Suárez was promoted to the Atlético B team in 2004. He made his first team debut in November 2005 when he came on to make a brief four-minute appearance against Sevilla FC in a 0-0 draw. Between 06-08 Suárez had two loan spells at Real Valladolid and Celta de Vigo. After the two loan spells, Suárez was sold to RCD Mallorca and two years later he was sold back to Atlético as they activated a buy-back clause in his contract. He returned to the Vicente Caledrón in 2010 and he went on to win the Europa League, Super Cup, La Liga and Copa del Rey. In the summer of 2015 Suárez was sold to Italian side ACF Fiorentina.
ANTONIO LOPEZ // SENIOR DEBUT: 2000
Being born in Benidorm, Antonio López moved to Madrid when he a youngster so he can join up with the Atlético Madrid cantera. In 1999 he was promoted to the B team, and in 2000 whilst Atlético Madrid were in the Segunda División, López made his debut for the club in a match against FC Córdoba. In 2002 López decided to go out on loan to CA Osasuna for two seasons as he was frustrated by the lack of playing time he was getting. Upon his return to Atlético, López was an automatic first team player and in 2008 was given the captain’s armband. During the 09/10 season López led Atlético to Europa League glory after beating Fulham FC 2-1 in the final. A few months later he won the Super Cup as Atlético beat Internazionale 2-0. López was also part of the squad that won the 2012 Europa League final against fellow Spanish side Athletic Bilbao.
ROBERTO SOLOZABAL // SENIOR DEBUT: 1989
Being a product of the Atlético Madrid cantera, Roberto Solozábal moved up to Atlético B in 1987, he would spend a further two years in the B team before finally getting promoted to the first team in 1989. Solozábal made his debut for Atlético on the 2nd of September 1989 in a 3-1 win against Valencia CF. In 1992 Solozábal was called up to represent Spain in the Olympics, he returned back to the Vicente Caledrón with a gold medal as Spain scored a 90th minute winner against Poland in the final. After establishing himself at Atlético and getting his first cap for the Spanish national team, Solozábal became a key part for Atlético in their quest for a La Liga title that owner Jesus Gil y Gil was so determined to win and in 1996 Atlético won a historic double as they were crowned La Liga and Copa del Rey champions with Solozábal at the heart of the defence.
JUANMA LOPEZ // SENIOR DEBUT: 1991
A true one-club man Juanma López spent his entire 13-year professional career at Atlético Madrid whilst coming through the Atlético cantera as well. Known for his overaggressive style of play and common to suspension, López was handed his first team debut in 1991 and a year later was called up for the Spain team to participate in the Olympics. Forming a formidable partnership with fellow Atlético cantera graduate Roberto Solozábal, Spain won the Olympics and López and Solozábal became Atlético’s first team centre-backs shortly after. The pair grew an indestructible partnership and in 1996 they won a historic double for Atlético as the team won their first La Liga title since 1977. López was a popular figure among Atlético fans as he was nicknamed “Superlópez” for his outstanding displays in defence and his loyalty to the club.
When talking about the next generation of stars to come through the Atlético Madrid cantera it would be rude not to start with Óliver Torres. This young midfielder is not only one of the best prospects at the Vicente Caledrón, but he is regarded as one of the best prospects in the whole of Spain and many believe he will be a key figure for the national team in the future. Óliver joined the Atlético cantera back in 2008 when he was 13, he spent four years working his way through the youth ranks and on the 19th of August 2012 he made his debut for the club coming on as a substitute. It was until the 14/15 season when Óliver finally made his breakthrough and showed his potential as he was loaned out to FC Porto to gain consistent first team football. Óliver finished the season with a tally of 40 games and 7 goals for the Portuguese team. During the summer of 2015 manager Diego Simeone decided to hand the iconic number 10 shirt to Óliver and told him he will stay at Atlético to help them with their La Liga campaign.
Another player that has a big future at Atlético is Saúl Ñíguez, this young defensive midfielder moved from the Real Madrid cantera to Atlético’s cantera in 2008. At just 17-years-old Saúl was awarded his first team debut for Los Colchoneros in a Europa League match against Turkish team Beşiktaş. A year later Saúl made his La Liga debut as he came on as a substitute for another Atlético cantera graduate Koke. On the 21st of July 2013, Rayo Vallecano announced the signing of Saúl on a season-long loan. After impressing whilst on loan, Saúl returned to Atlético with 37 appearances for Los Vallecanos. He is now an established first team player that competes with the likes of Gabi and Tiago for a starting spot in the centre of midfield.
Written by Alex Saidy-Smith
Alex is a London-based writer covering European football for various websites. You can keep up-to-date with his work by checking out his website www.alexsaidysmith.com or alternatively following him on Twitter: @AlexSaidySmith.
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