As the European Under-21 title is safely tucked away and the World Under-20 campaign rumbled on, nobody could question the Spanish system’s success at converting promise into talent. But youth development is a fragmented art, difficult to bring together effectively, and even when things seem to be going well there are still bound to be nagging questions about players you’d like to see progressing more. Players like Sergio Canales.
On the face of it Canales is doing just fine. After all, he’s just won a European Under-21 winner’s medal to go with the equivalent victory he enjoyed at Under-17 level, was player of the tournament at the prestigious Copa Atlántico and has already experienced the high life at Real Madrid. But his career so far still brings to the surface the issues which dog any nation which tries to pull together a coherent youth development policy.
When Canales first burst into the Racing Santander first team as an eighteen year old expectation was perhaps set too high. Here, it was assumed, was a talent to rival Messi, a gifted forward who would bring that extra factor to the Spanish national side’s framework which the Argentinian brought to Barcelona’s.
Still, his impact only reflected the anticipation which had been felt for years beforehand in Cantabria. The Racing youth coaches knew they had something special, and were keen to see him come to fruition.
It was easy to see why we all got so excited. Remember January 2010 and that remarkable goal at the Sánchez Pizjuán in only his third match, lifted over Andres Palop, which even had the Sevilla fans applauding (admittedly, probably in part as sarcastic protest against their own team’s travails, and certainly in the knowledge that the youngster was leaving on a free transfer at the end of the season and had already been in conversation with their club!)
Do you also remember his second goal in that match, a beautiful variation on the theme as, in a similar position, he opted instead to dance through to tap home the winner. No wonder the crowd rose to acknowledge him when he was substituted; no wonder Marca was moved to declare “Canales dresses up as Maradona”
That was no flash in the pan, either. Despite hardly playing for a strong side, young Canales was able to catch the eye. A wrongly disallowed goal at the Bernabeu was an illustration of a cool head, and two goals in his first start, against Espanyol, suggested a player ready to step up to the responsibility of a starring role.
We may never know if that was the case, because he didn’t step up to Sevilla, but instead went to the biggest of stages. Surely the move to Real Madrid was a step too far too soon. Perhaps Jose Mourinho’s preference for working with a tight squad rather than allowing an abundance of cash to lead to a flabby roster convinced him that his chances would come. Injuries haven’t helped his progress, of course, but the step up to a voracious European Super Club whose coach didn’t appear keen to trust him set him back. Now he’s a 22-year old squad member at Valencia, which is hardly what we were anticipating when he first burst onto the scene.
Which leads back to the question of whether the Spanish way is a model other nations could follow. At the crux of this is a complex question: is having two massive clubs a hindrance or a help?
Naturally the appetite of Barcelona and Real Madrid for sustained success means that if you’re a talented young Spaniard, you’re on their radar. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a moot point.
On paper, the Barcelona commitment to bringing players through from La Masia is massively beneficial to Spanish football, providing as it does a constant stream of well-trained talent. However, even that apparatus can’t guarantee a satisfactory career progress for all its talented graduates: the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique left rather than wait their turn, and Thiago has made noises all Summer about doing likewise.
Having a stint elsewhere didn’t hurt Fabregas or Pique, of course, and might be in Thiago’s best interests (although he may merely be seeking an improved situation at the Camp Nou, of course!) The story at the Bernabeu is a slightly different matter.
In the rather skewed perspective that many place on the Real-Barcelona dynamic, especially those observing from outside Spain, Barsa represent the good guys, while Real don the black hat. Comparing their youth development is a card which is regularly played in this analysis: Barcelona bring through talent while at the Bernabeu they frustrate it. To make that argument is to ignore some of the most illustrious Spanish players of recent years, not least the current national captain.
However, it is also true to say that there are examples of young talents who found it difficult to break through for Los Merengues. This issue s especially pertinent when it comes to strikers. Real need to be constantly at the top of the world game and naturally look to import world class strikers who can provide instant results. Plenty of young forwards have been overlooked as Real splash out for the latest superstar, leaving the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Soldado to cut their teeth elsewhere.
Against that backdrop, it’s hard not to worry for Álvaro Morata, already a political football as his deployment by Jose Mourinho last season often seemed to be linked to his war with Alberto Toril over the role of his nursery side. The likes of Dani Carvajal and Joselu decamped to the Bundesliga rather than wait for Mourinho to give them a chance, and Canales went to Valencia of course. It’ll be interesting to see if Carlo Ancelotti will view the young local talent at his disposal any differently.