As featured in The Guardian:

“When Antoine played, the sun came out” gushes Real Sociedad’s Academy Director Luki Iriarte.

Following an uphill trek through Gipuzkoa woodland and farms, dodging chicken broods in an attempt to keep my new, white footwear as clean as possible, I finally reach the Zubieta training complex.

Due to the green setting, the unmistakable smells of nature carving into the wintry air, and direct approach of the people in their entities, I’m constantly thrown back when passing locals greet me in Euskaran, rather than an “Ayup”, or other distinct form of acknowledgement to be heard in the Yorkshire Dales. One thing is for sure, just like Yorkshire, the sun doesn’t come out all that often around these parts.Barely minutes into our chat, Iriarte is already cascading about Zubieta’s most famous son in Antoine Griezmann. “Listen, when this lad played, different things happened. He was just different. So tiny, so skinny. We looked to protect him a lot. We just knew he was special.”

He continues, “He couldn’t find a club in France, having trialled in quite a few. The French way of playing didn’t suit him, it’s more physical and they looked for bigger players; but his football IQ, awareness and vision of play were things that we placed above his lack of physical components. We knew he was different.”

‘Long-term vision’ is a term repeated consistently as I’m guided around the complex – and with the academy’s youngest age-group being U13 – things are certainly done differently here. Rather than plucking fledglings from their comfort zones, La Real believe in allowing youngsters to have a childhood and find their own way to Zubieta, should they choose to come.

“We start late as we want them to have the chance to be kids first. We have endless contact with their schools, and in their physical education classes they’ll work on six different sports every year up until the age of 12 (when they leave primary school). At school, they do three individual sports and three collective sports each year,” says Iriarte. “Are we 100% certain that all the PE teachers are doing things well? No. But we know that the kid that’s coming here at 12-years-old has played handball, basketball, done cycling and many other sports. We believe that all this helps us to have an open-minded, more flexible individual.”

The club are in constant contact with more than 70 clubs in the Gipuzkoa region, but won’t begin looking at a child until he’s at least 10. “Yes, we run the risk that neighbouring clubs will pick them up during the younger years, but our message to them is “Stay in your environment, stay with your family, stay with your friends. And if you feel like you’re ready to leave all of those behind then you can come to Real Sociedad.”

My questions immediately turn towards coach education and Iriarte assures me, “We have to educate and convince the clubs and coaches in the region and we regularly remind them they’re coaching individuals, not teams to win. Down in Madrid and Valencia – and most of the continent these days – there’s tournaments for U7s. We don’t believe in that.” He advances, “By bringing players in later, we stand less chance of getting it wrong. Of course, there’s kids who look good when very young and have the profile to win us youth tournaments, but do they have the profile of a player who will play in our first team?” he says, “I’m convinced in our methodology a little bit more every single day.”

La Real certainly put people first and apart from just seven individuals, every one of the club’s players from the B team down are studying or have already graduated. Those still studying for their High School exams must to get 80% as a final grade and the club has employed seven teachers who come in to help students achieve that. Iriarts says, “Every person is a project. We value and protect them, and we have their needs and what’s best for them in mind with the intention of giving them the best chance to get into the first team of La Real.” The former club scout, coach and now Academy Director continues, “A first division sporting director once said to me “Luki, if you create a load of engineers who’re good people, but no footballers, you’ll get sacked.” He’s right. Our priority is to make football players, but if they’re good people too then even better.”Out on pitches, slickened by the Basque rain, we watch the morning sessions of both the First team and B team. As youngsters, both head coaches were projects of the famed academy and so are the majority of the staff here, from analysts to fitness coaches and physios. “It’s important to have La Real people here around the place.” says Iriarte, “Imanol Alguacil started here as a player and developed as a coach in our academy before going through the ranks and finally taking over the first team. He knows this building inside out. He’s a great reference for our coaches. He knows the player, the philosophy, the environment, the culture, the language.

He advances, “Whereas Xabi Alonso had the opportunity to move on, playing for the best coaches and winning the World Cup, Champions Leagues and league titles around the world; all these experiences are fantastic for our young players to learn from.” He proceeds “The academy coaches here understand that the process is what’s important, not only the work of Imanol and Xabi. Alonso has all of the best players from our academy and Imanol has 10 in his team – and at least four starting every game – all because of the work done by everyone who’s part of the process from U13 upwards.”From the kitmen to chefs in the kitchen to both Alguacil and Alonso, there’s a real family-atmosphere ingrained into the Zubieta walls as each individual stops in their tracks to greet me and give up time to speak graciously. Academy Coordinator Mitxel Badiola ensures me that “The base of our success is how the people feel about the club”, referring to his years spent coaching Spain international Mikel Oyarzabal, who recently acquired a degree in Business at the San Sebastian University; “We have three pillars which must be in connection; they are the person, the student and the player, and they all need to go in the same direction at the same speed to reach the top here.” He continues “Orya was always going to arrive to where he’s arrived. He went at 100% into every game, he was a captain and leader off the pitch too. His values have taken him to where he is now.”

With academy sessions now taking place under the rolling Basque countryside, the December air has a bite to it and the ball is flying with velocity as youngsters look to attack and create openings whenever in possession. Not a single individual has difficulty managing the ball, from goalkeepers to strikers. I’m watching the U19s with coordinator and former B team coach Aitor Zulaika who attempts to quell my awed gaze, “You wouldn’t have seen this up here in the 80’s. Every Basque pitch was covered in mud and football was more like rugby. Basque players were big, strong lads who could survive on those pitches. The opposite if you went to Seville; you couldn’t find a pitch with a patch of grass left due to the heat. Now, with artificial pitches and better facilities across the country, Spanish football has changed, the types of players have changed and Real Sociedad has changed.”

Zulaika continues, “There’s only 700,000 people in Gipuzkoa. Most of our players are from towns and villages. They have a different way of being. They’re street people and street players. Of the 16 academy players in the first team in 2009, 15 were from villages and towns, only Xabi Prieto was from San Sebastián. That’s the kind of kid who tends to do well here. With football – and the world in general – being more controlled by the day, we try to go the other way. The village kids who come later on at U13, with their own personality, are who make us different. They make us Real Sociedad.

By Alex Clapham@alexclapham