Football's success stories are well documented. Like the youth players that rise through the ranks of the academy system to make it as professionals. But what about the ones who don't make it?
Ignacio Martin was just like any young football fan. He dreamed of playing professionally for his boyhood club. But when the opportunity to join Real Madrid's prestigious Youth Academy finally came along, it didn't quite live up to expectations.
Ignacio grew up on the island of Tenerife, part of the Canary Islands. He began playing football from the age of 10 after encouragement from his brother. He enjoyed the social aspect of football and made lots of great friends along the way.
When you played with your friends it almost seemed like the objective was not winning. The objective was well, if that guy lost a ball, if the next guy lost a ball, I would be the one to help him get it back. And I guess he would do the same thing for me. We respected the importance of reciprocity.
But by the age of 15, Martin began to attract the attention of scouts who were recruiting for various football academies. One of those clubs was AC Milan who invited Ignacio to play in a tournament in Valencia. No offer was forthcoming, but another chance presented itself at a summer camp hosted by Real Madrid. Ignacio and his brother were selected from a group of around a thousand kids after impressing in tryouts. They were invited to join the Real Madrid Youth Academy.
This had long been an ambition of Ignacio’s after growing up watching youth academy tournaments in Spain. After a meeting at the clubs training facilities he was offered a contract, and he signed. All costs included. Flights, relocation, school fees, everything. He was about to join one of the best football schools in the world. The dream had become reality.
That first day I was just pretty excited and just scared. I was really scared, yeah. They introduce you to the rest of the team and I was looking at these guys and I was realising that I knew most of these guys from the tournaments I used to watch.
But that was just first day. Then when we started training and everything, things went a little bit better at first.
But it didn’t take long for Ignacio to learn that life at the Academy wasn’t going to be easy. As injuries started to accumulate over the season, he realised that something just wasn’t right. Not simply a combination of bad luck and having to adjust to a new training schedule. But rather, the way the Academy was run just wasn’t sufficient.
Every day would see the students follow the same routine. After waking up at 8am to a less than ideal breakfast, the students would head off to school. They wouldn’t get a break for lunch until 2pm before finishing classes around 5pm. After school they had just enough time to eat a few biscuits and a milkshake that was provided in their dorms before heading off to training. The training grounds were a 45 minute bus ride away. After a full two hour session, finishing at around 10pm, it was time for the same bus trip back home to their residence for dinner.
This was repeated every weekday, while weekends were occupied with playing competitive matches. There was little time for studying, or sleep for that matter. It was this lifestyle that caused Ignacio to struggle. It became clear that there was a serious lack of balance to life at the Academy.
Teenagers were being treated like professionals, expected to train at a very high level, but without an adequate diet. That led to being more vulnerable to injuries and made recovery even more difficult. For all the emphasis on football training, most of the kids aren’t expected to make it as professionals. Yet, their education was secondary.
I thought that was one of the major problems Real Madrid had because basically that lifestyle made you want to stop studying. Because you could only concentrate on one thing.
As a teenager, Ignacio says he didn’t have the capacity to properly express his feelings. He didn’t want to complain, for the fear of seeming ungrateful for such a rare opportunity. And he didn’t want to disappoint his family. That put a lot of pressure on him and affected his mental health.
The Real Madrid Youth Academy is commonly known as La Fábrica - The Factory. And it has produced a lot of great players who have gone onto successful, professional careers. But considering Ignacio’s personal experience, it can also be interpreted in a different way.
Is it morally appropriate you know, for a 15 year old to learn these harsh lessons with the maturity one has back then? Is it appropriate for a 15 year old, and even people who are younger than me, to learn that they’re basically a product on a market and everybody is basically out to get their cut?
At the end of the season, Ignacio was told he wasn’t good enough to stay and was let go. He says he felt liberated. And despite everything he went through, he looks back on his time at the academy as a learning experience that made him stronger as a person. It also gave him a new perspective on football.
I think that it contaminated my relationship a little bit but at the end of the day I could draw a line, make a difference between the football I really loved and the football I despised. The football I really loved was the football you play with your friends, the football you play in your local team. That’s the real football.