As featured in The Guardian:

“One late tackle and it could be allover. Every player knows that.”

The 19-year-old falls silent for a second as he peers down at his feet with an apprehensive look. “This game is all about luck. One good moment can make you and one bad moment can finish you.”

Lifting his head, he recalls, “I remember playing for my local team in a tournament and I’d had a nightmare of a weekend. We had two games a day and I can’t remember completing a pass over the three days. The ball was bouncing off me, I was missing easy chances, nothing was working.”

Now, wearing an abashed grin, the striker continues, “Atletico Madrid were there, Rayo, Getafe, Real Madrid; all the top teams in the region. Somehow, even with me, we got to the final.” Standing to re-enact his actions, “At 0-0, there were a couple of minutes left and I remember the ball just landing to me about 20-metres from goal. I was that pissed off with my performance, I just thought “fuck it” and whacked it – the ball flew into the stanchion and there was a massive pile-on – substitutes, coaches, everyone. I got approached by a scout straight after the game and here I am playing here now. Incredible.”The conversation comes to a halt as the bus pulls into the stop outside the Madrid based University. The centre-forward gets off with four of his teammates who accompany him in attending classes every weekday after morning sessions at the academy.

Less than 30 hours earlier, the young starlets were playing a league game on the border where Spain meets Portugal in Badajoz. Following a west-bound, five-hour journey, the players were ordered to depart the bus and stretch their legs on a walk around the town upon arrival.

Sporting their official club tracksuits, the group of under-19 players must have felt as though they’d stepped into a time-machine when punters poured out of bars and into the street to hurl abuse towards the youngsters. As the boys laughed the insults off whilst stopping to smile for pictures with local hairdressers and shopkeepers, the coaching staff decided to continue the tour of the characteristic town; feeling it aided their insight into where they were and what kind of game was to come in a few hours’ time.

The surroundings of the town were just a lick of the lid of what followed as the coach pulled into the stadium. Having waded through the bodies in the car park, the staff were followed by the squad into the dressing room which had no windows, no lights and trapped in an odor of the clogged toilet that had been kindly left to greet us.

The stench of cigar smoke piercing the air as the players took to the pitch was a welcome one. The stand was packed, the atmosphere was hostile and, of course, the delightful bunch from the bar were there in full voice. With a narrow pitch and playing surface that was unduly inconsistent, the game-plan was proving sterile as the direct Extremadurans frustrated the visitors, eliminated the spaces and battled to a 1-0 win thanks to a header from a set-piece. This was football. This was real football.The sounds of punched dressing room walls and kicked water bottles were drowned out by the chanting and dancing of the home players joining the crowd above. “Listen to these dickheads. Have they won the Champions League?” was accompanied by: “One chance. One fucking chance and they win 1-0!” This is football. The five-hour journey back to south-Madrid was completed in utter silence.

On the pitch, the gulf between La Liga and where these young boys in particular are right now is a big one. Off the pitch, it’s a million times bigger. Extremadura UD’s first team play in the second tier of Spanish football; yet only a handful of the squad can survive on the money they make from football alone. Young players around Spain are more than conscious of the financial decrease in the Spanish game, and the reality of making a living from playing football is something that not many outside La Liga get to do. However, with away days like these every other week, the hotshots at the likes of Getafe and both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are served a constant reminder of the fine margins between the top and second place.

The set-up of the regional divisions and youth academies around Spanish football consistently push the young players into uncomfortable scenarios which the real football world entails of. This supplies an assist in cushioning the difficulties which may arise should they never get to play at the elite level. The importance of education is also a pivotal message drilled into players. Several of the 23-man Spain squad which won the 2019 Under-21 European Championships are currently continuing their degrees, even as their careers are taking off, and Manchester City’s new midfielder Rodrigo is completing his business and economics studies between dictating Premier League games.


UDINE, ITALY – JUNE 30: the Spain players celebrate with the trophy winning the 2019 UEFA U-21 Final between Spain and Germany at Stadio Friuli on June 30, 2019 in Udine, Italy. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)

Thursday morning on the training pitch, the players are still in subdued spirits. Clips have been watched and errors critiqued before the young hopefuls are put through a session under the Madrid sun. Three of the under-19 players are on the pitch beside us taking part in a session with the first team as they prepare to face Barcelona at the weekend. The manager’s voice rings out: “When Busquets receives it from here, he immediately looks to play to here. We have to be aware!”

The envious teammates watch on as their session finishes, laughing at the surrealism as their mate is playing the part of Gerard Pique playing out from the back.

As the budding prospects have gone their various ways to differing colleges and universities – now in student mode – the players push to rush off the bus outside the campus, mindful that the club is informed if they don’t attend class or even arrive late. The team’s top goalscorer looks back before the doors close: “I was Luis Suarez this morning, now I’ve got a three-hour business lecture!” So near, yet so far. This is football.

Author: Alex Clapham@alexclapham