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Taking a Look Back: Real Madrid “Wonder-Kids” of the 21st Century

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Examining the careers of Real Madrid’s former young stars

Malaga v Real Madrid Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Real Madrid—a club, a brand, a global community—synonymous with superstardom and success, the pinnacle of world football. The reach of the club goes far beyond Madrid or Spain, as Steven Mandis pointed out in his book, The Real Madrid Way:

“Experts estimate that Real Madrid has approximately 450 million fans around the world—more than American football has in total. Perhaps the best evidence of the power of the brand and identity lies in the club’s social media following. In 2015, Real Madrid had a total of 200 million follower across all global social media platforms, including those in China. To put this into context, the American sports team with the highest social media following was the Los Angeles Lakers at around 25 million.”

These numbers have only grown since 2015. Simply put, Real Madrid as an institution is immense. The hierarchy at the club, men like Florentino Perez, Jose Angel Sanchez, and Zinedine Zidane recognize the stature of Madrid and like the fans, demand that the stratospheric standards created by the club are always upheld. But the game is constantly changing and the playing field, specifically the transfer market, has evolved. Clubs like Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City have revolutionized the transfer market. Ownership like those found in Paris and Manchester are now capable of spending upwards of 400 million in a single season. This has led to a change in transfer policy at Madrid. The best young players must be identified, scouted, and signed before their price hits that 100 million mark. Case in point, young Marco Asensio. Signed at the age of 18 for 3.5 million euros from Real Mallorca and then immediately loaned back to the club. Since then, his stock has skyrocketed and Marco is arguably one of the top three young players in the world with a value surpassing 100 million.

Though, it is not just Marco Asensio that has been brought in to the white house. There has been an influx of young talent, specifically those aged 20 or younger that have been purchased in the last couple of years. The list includes: Jesus Vallejo (20), Theo (19), Martin Odeegard (16), Vincius Junior (16), Dani Ceballos (20), and continues with Castilla-- Valverde (18) and Sergio Diaz (18). It’s not to say the days of Galacticos are gone, if rumors about this summer are to be believed, but there is a clear direction from the top brass that identifying and securing young talent is a priority. But how have all these wonder-kids worked out in the past? How has the stature and pressure of an institution like Real Madrid affected these raw talents?

The parameters are simple: looking back at each season since the start of the 21st century, we can examine any signing by Madrid at or below the age of 20 and judge how their career panned out, were they Real Madrid quality? NOTE: most of these players careers are still on going, but there is a large enough sample size to use as perspective.

2005-2006: Sergio Ramos (19)

In the summer of 2005, Sergio Ramos was purchased by Real Madrid from Sevilla for €27 million. At the time it was a record for a Spanish teenager. He was the only Spanish player brought in during Florentino Perez’s first stint as Real’s president. The investment looked significant, but what a bargain it has proven to be for Los Blancos. Sergio Ramos was a 19-year old who was a full Spanish international and earned a starting position during his first season with the club. That starting birth has yet to be relinquished. The symbol of La Decima and a symbol of Madrisimo, Sergio Ramos has amassed 550 appearances for the club and is the undoubted leader and captain. He has been an integral part of the team for 12 seasons. Like many young talents finding their feet, Ramos made mistakes and was exposed. Prime Ronaldinho had his way with Ramos in the 3-0 smashing at the Bernabeu. And it was man vs boy when Thierry Henry stiff armed Ramos on his way to scoring in the Bernabeu and knocking Madrid out in the CL round of 16. Despite the mistakes, Ramos was without a doubt one of the top talents in all of Europe and the quality he possessed at a young age should not be undermined. A full Spanish international by age 19 and an indispensable player for Los Blancos. Sergio Ramos has won it all: three Champions League titles, four La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey titles, and three of each—Spanish Super Cup, Uefa Super Cup, and the Club World Cup, as well as international titles with Spain: (2) European Championships and a World Cup. He was a key cog in all of those triumphs. Not to mention he has been included in the World XI on eight occasions! Ramos is a club legend and there is no doubting the success of his signing.

Real Madrid v F.C. Barcelona

2006-2007: Fernando Gago (20), Gonzalo Higuaín (19), and Marcelo (18)

In the winter market of the 2006-2007 season, then President Ramon Calderon and Sporting Director, Predrag Mijatovic, as well as then coach, Fabio Capello, decided to sign three jewels of the South American market. It was a policy to rejuvenate a squad that contained a host of players over 30 years old.

Fernando Gago: Acquired from Boca Juniors for €20 million, Gago was heralded as the next Fernando Redondo. A deep lying defensive midfielder with a wonderful eye for a pass. Fans and pundits alike, expected Gago to be the biggest success of the three signings. He had been the fulcrum, the “glue” (hence Ray Hudson’s nickname for him—Gago glue) to a good Boca Junior’s side. Despite spending five years with the club (including a loan to Roma), Gago only managed 91 appearances. He managed to win two La Liga titles and earned a starting position during those triumphs, but never had the midfield support to reach his potential. Often played as a lone anchor under Bernd Schuster in a midfield three with Guti and Sneijder, Gago was more of a Pirlo type player than a Kante and the system/personnel revealed all his flaws. The lack of true disciplined midfield system and his reoccurring injuries (in his last two years with the club he only managed 22 games), meant he never fulfilled his potential and was ultimately replaced. Fernando Gago had loans to Roma, a move to Valencia, and then eventually ended up back at Boca Juniors. Now 31, Gago still plays for Boca Juniors and still battles knee injuries.

Real Madrid's New Signing Fernando Gago Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Gonzalo Higuaín: Higuain caught the attention of all Europe’s big names when he scored twice for River Plate to beat Brazilian champions Corinthians and knock them out of the Libertadores Cup in 2006. He then scored twice in a 3-1 win over eternal rivals Boca Juniors and he put away a spectacular goal in River’s 1-1 draw against Velez Sarsfield to end the Apertura championship as River Plate’s top scorer. Madrid signed Higuain for 12 million. The Argentine hitman would go on to play 190 games for Madrid and score 107 goals. He won three La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey’s, and two Spanish Super Cups. Gonzalo played with passion and bled white during his six seasons with the club. There are countless moments of vintage Higuain: his assist in the 4-3 turn around victory against Espanyol in the ‘06-‘07 Liga triumph, his winning goal in Pamplona to secure the La Liga title in ‘07-‘08, his four goal haul against Malaga in which he single handily put the team on his back in ‘08-‘09, and his 22 league goals in ‘11-‘12 which spurred on his great rivalry with Benzema and led Madrid to the 100+ point league title. After being diagnosed and having surgery on a herniated lumbar disc in his back, Higuain was never quite the same. Ultimately left because of the competition with Benzema and his perceived inability to convert in big games, but most fans have a very positive image of Higuain. He scored some crucial goals and celebrated three league titles with the club. He was Madrid quality and has still proven to be one of the best strikers in the game with Napoli and Juventus.

Real Madrid v Espanyol Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Marcelo: Signed at just 18 years of age for 6.5 million after only 30 appearances with Fluminense. What more can be said about Marcelo? The most unique player in all of world football. The Brazilian has proven to be the best purchase out of the trio brought in back in 2006 and he was the least talked about player of the three. Dubbed the successor to his idol, Roberto Carlos, Marcelo struggled in his first few seasons with Madrid. In his initial six months he saw very little game time, only making six appearances. After Capello’s departure, Bernd Schuster placed faith in Marcelo giving him over 30 appearances in the next campaign. Marcelo continued to develop season after season. Manuel Pellegrini preferred him in a left midfield role rather than left back in order to limit his defensive liabilities. Under Jose Mourinho, Marcelo improved dramatically in defense and his attacking output simply cannot be matched by any other fullback bar Dani Alves. Now the team’s second captain, behind Sergio Ramos, Marcelo is already a legend and some believe he has already surpassed Roberto Carlos. The silverware he has won with the club is certainly not lacking: Three Champions League titles, four La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey titles, and three of each—Spanish Super cup, Uefa Super cup, and the Club World Cup. Along with Ramos, the Brazilian has proven to be one of the best ever signings by the club.

Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

2007-2008: Royston Drenthe (20)

After setting the 2007 u21 European Championships alight with Holland, Drenthe was considered the hottest talent on the market. His speed was blinding and he had the skill to operate as both a left back and left winger. Drenthe was an athletic specimen, he had all the attributes to be a star—speed, strength, technique, and a powerful left foot. Ultimately it would be his attitude and off the field antics that let him down. During his five seasons with Madrid, he managed 65 appearances for the club. He spent time on loan at Hércules and Everton, in attempt to right the ship on his floundering career, but neither of those stints were successful. Drenthe is now 30 years old and retired after a very disappointing career; by all accounts he has been dubbed a flop. He recently revealed to Marca his nightlife habits while in Madrid:

“I went out, yes. Not every night, as they said. But a lot of nights, yes. We went to Buddha and had a great time. Very often I had to go out in secret because it wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t easy to say “no” every night because as a Real Madrid player you are offered a lot. Madrid is a beautiful city, there are a lot of restaurants, a lot of parties, beautiful girls... And you are young, a player for Real Madrid... It puts a lot of temptations in front of you and if you aren’t totally focused...”

Getafe v Real Madrid Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

2008-2009: Dani Parejo (19) (Promoted from Castilla and then loaned to QPR and recalled in the winter market)

Dubbed as the jewel of “La Fabrica” by Don Alfredo Di Stefano, Dani Parejo was meant to be the next big star from Real Madrid’s youth system since the likes of Raul, Guti, and Iker Casillas. AS ran the headline, “La gran joya de ‘La Fábrica’ vuelve a casa” (the jewel of the youth system returns home). Dani Parejo was promoted to the first team in the summer of 2008 and subsequently loaned out to QPR in the English Championship to gain experience in a league with extra physicality, an aspect of Parejo’s game Madrid wanted to develop. Half way through the season and Madrid were floundering. Bernd Schuster was fired and Juande Ramos was brought in as care-taker manager. The club made frantic signings, Hunteelar and Lass Diarra were brought in, and the hierarchy at the club opted to bring back Dani after six months away in attempt to turn the season around and win some silverware. Parejo would only make 5 substitute appearances during his return and was never really given an opportunity. He was sold to Getafe the following summer and has gone on to become a key cog for Valencia. He is now club captain at Valencia and many feel he has been unlucky not to represent Spain at the full international level. Is Dani Parejo Real Madrid quality? Perhaps, but he never hit the highs expected of him and for that may well be dubbed a disappointment.

SV Hamburg v Real Madrid - Emirates Cup Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

2010-2011: Sergio Canales (19)

After a breakthrough six months with Racing Santander, 18-year-old Sergio Canales was subject to an oh-so common transfer war between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid would win the war, signing their man for a reported €4.5 million plus incentives. Signed in the winter, Canales would arrive in Madrid in the summer of 2010. He initially made a great start to life under Jose Mourinho, scoring on his debut in a preseason friendly against Club America. He then started the first match of the season with new signing Mesut Ozil relegated to the bench. He would go on to play only 518 minutes for the club and ten appearances in his one and only season. He h

Mallorca v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

as been ravaged by knee ligament injuries over his career, significantly stunting both his confidence and development. Now 27 years old, he has gone on to play for Valencia and Real Sociedad, and has earned a starting birth with La Real. Unfortunately injuries slowed down what could have been a magical Guti-like player. Canales will be seen as another big talent for Spain and Real Madrid that was unable to hit the heights expected of him.

2011-2012: Raphael Varane (18)

As a young 17 year old breaking into the Lens team, Varane was given the tour of Valdebebas and Madrid’s facilities. He was to decide between Manchester United and Real Madrid. Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to build his future defense around the youngster. But it was Zinedine Zidane that made the difference. “I answered the phone not knowing who it was,” Varane told Real Madrid TV. “I kept listening because I recognized his voice, and that it was Zidane. I told him we’d talk some other time, that I couldn’t talk at that very moment because I was studying for university entrance exams. People later said I was crazy because I hung up on Zidane when he was trying to sign me.” Varane eventually called Zidane back and there would be no turning back, Madrid was his choice. His breakout year with Madrid came in his second season under Mourinho where he displaced Pepe from the starting lineup. Ruptured knee ligaments would curtail his development, but unlike Canales or Gago, the Frenchman has persisted despite the setback. Only recently has his battle with Pepe ended and the defender has cemented himself as one of the first names on the team sheet. His injury problems are a concern, but there is no doubting Varane’s quality. The youngest player to have three Champions’ League titles to his name in the history of the competition, Varane will only be looking to bolster that haul in the coming years. A future captain and future legend of the club, the Frenchman can be touted as a success.

Real Madrid CF v Real Sociedad de Futbol  - Liga BBVA Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

2012-2013: Alvaro Morata (20) (Promoted to the first team)

After 83 appearances and 45 goals for Real Madrid Castilla, Alvaro Morata was officially promoted to the first team by Jose Mourinho for the 2012-2013 season. He would make a meager 15 appearances in the campaign and score only 2 goals. Though, one of his best performances came against Barcelona in a Clasico at the Bernabeu. Madrid would come away with a 2-1 victory and Morata played on the left where he supplied Karim Benzema with a beautiful assist. Morata always wanted more and demanded more of himself. Juventus and Antonio Conte had long been admirers and snapped up the player for a €20 million fee. There was a 2-year buy back clause inserted into his contract and Madrid decided to exercise their right to buy back Morata and integrate him into the team once again. Despite being the second top scorer in the squad in the 2016-2017 season, Morata would not earn a starting position. He proved he was Madrid quality and professed his love for the club on countless occasions, but it was never enough to displace Karim Benzema. With a world cup year on the horizon, Morata left for Chelsea in order to secure his place in the Spain squad. Madrid would be compensated €80 million upon his departure, but the void in the squad has yet to be replaced. Morata is undoubtedly Madrid quality and it’s unfortunate he was not happy at the club.

Real Madrid CF v RCD Espanyol - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

2013-2014: Jesé Rodriguez (20)

Jese was arguably the brightest talent to come out of La Fabrica since the turn of the century. Stylistically, the Spanish forward resembled a young Cristiano Ronaldo as he often cut in from the left and isolated himself 1 v 1 with the opposition’s full back. The man from the Canary Islands climbed through the ranks at Madrid, and eventually made his name via his performances with Castilla. Jesé’s skills and goal scoring plaudits did not go unnoticed, Florentino Perez once described him as the jewel in the crown of Los Blancos’ academy. He ended his final season with Castilla with 22 goals in 38 appearances, thus earning the Zarra Trophy for the top Spanish goal scorer in the league. Mourinho never afforded Jese any opportunities, but with Carlo Aneclotti arrival Jese was given the opportunity for full promotion to the first team. Half way through the year, Jese would seize his chance. With injuries keeping Gareth Bale sidelined, Jese found his form. Through the end of 2013 - March 2014, Jese scored a crucial late winner at Valencia, scored his first Copa del Rey goal in a 2–0 win over CA Osasuna and scored in La Liga against Athletic Bilbao, Villarreal and Getafe. It was a meteoric rise and there was already whispers of a potential future Balon D’or winner. Just as Jese was hitting his stride and breaking into the starting eleven, it would all be taken away from him. In a round of 16 Champions League tie against Schalke, Jese suffered an ACL tear ruling him out for the remainder of the season. He was never able to recover the same form and was unable to break into the Madrid XI over the next three seasons. He was sold to PSG for reported fee of €25m, but has been unable to break into the French side. He has been loaned out to La Liga side Las Palmas and now EPL side, Stoke City. In his previous and current loan spell, he again has been unable to recapture the form that made him one of the brightest young talents in all of the world. Marca had asked Jese what would have been had he not been injured against Schalke in 2014, the striker replied: ”I have thought about it. And I’ve never liked comparing myself to anyone, but I think I would be an undisputed starter for Real Madrid. Of that I’m sure.” Despite his current form and all his setbacks, it’s not outlandish for him and others to believe he could have been a starter for Madrid. Of all the talents to not pan out, Jese is probably the one that hurts Madridista’s most. A player from the Cantera that could have marked an era at Madrid if not for his injury. At 25 years old, he still has time to prove there is magic in his boots, but without regular minutes at Stoke City his window of opportunity dwindles.

Real Madrid CF v Al-Sadd - Santiago Bernabeu Trophy Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Suffice to say, each young star’s career develops differently. For every Sergio Ramos, there is a Fernando Gago. Some players work out and others do not and it often varies from player to player. There are guys like Royston Drenthe, who made the Bernabeu faithful erupt on his debut with a golazo, only to go on and retire at age 30 after a horrid career. Injuries and confidence certainly play a factor—where would Jese and Canales be had they never suffered the cruel injuries that they did? And not every player will dedicate their life to Madrid. Higuain had six largely successful years at the club and was a very important player. After the ’11-’12 season when the team was celebrating the La Liga title in the Bernabeu, the whole stadium chanted, “¡Pipita, quédate!” (Higuain, stay!). Ultimately, like Morata, he wasn’t happy with his role and left to be a protagonist at another club. If Marcelo’s early performances were judged as harshly as Theo’s (largely in part due to the growth in social media), he may have left the club years ago and Madridistas would never get to reap the rewards of such a unique and aesthetically pleasing player. Given the magnitude of Real Madrid, it is tough for youngsters to develop without extreme scrutiny. The current crop of youngsters each have their own story to come—some may reach unprecedented heights, while others will fall short. The developmental phase will vary for each and for Madrid fans it is about enjoying the successes they do have in a white shirt. And most of all, glorifying the lucky few who go on to be a Sergio Ramos, a symbol and legend of the club.

Works Cited
Garca-Ochoa , Juan Ignacio, and Sam Leveridge. “Drenthe on Partying: I Was 20 and It Was Hard to Say No Every Night.” MARCA in English, MARCA, 10 Nov. 2017, www.marca.com/en/football/international-football/2017/11/10/5a04e490268e3eff6e8b4676.html.
Mandis, Steven G. The Real Madrid Way: How Values Created the Most Successful Sports Team on the Planet. BenBella Books, Inc., 2016.