La Fábrica

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 came along, it didn't quite live up to expectations.


James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.

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: My name is Ignacio Martin. I grew up in a pretty small island called Tenerife. It’s part of the Canary Islands, which is, at the same time it’s part of Spain. That’s where I started playing football. I remember it was my brother who encouraged me to start.

The first time I became part of a team was when I was around 10, became part of one of my local teams. And after that I made a bunch of good friends, continued playing with the same team. And that’s the way I grew up, playing football in my island.

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.

Basically, the friendships you made while you were there, they have lasted up until today and I know they will last forever. Because the things you share in a football field, I don’t think you can share them anywhere else. I don’t think that combined effort, that you can find that combined effort somewhere else that’s outside of the pitch, you know.

James: By the age of 15, Ignacio was getting noticed by scouts.

Ignacio: And I guess at some point they scouted me because we had the best defence in the island, we let zero goals in. And I guess they already knew who I was back then. After that the AC Milan Academy invited us over for some tournaments in Valencia. And we did play against them, we played against Real Madrid.

After that I went to one of those summer camps for Real Madrid and that was where they selected me and my brother from a range of a thousand kids who were there to actually come and try out for Real Madrid. We tried out for Real Madrid and they told us they wanted us to play for them.

James: Ignacio would watch youth tournaments in Spain which included many academy teams. It had long been his ambition to join them.

Ignacio: And I really thought, “Wow”. One day I would want to be one of those kids right? Because it just seems like a dream. So when they actually told me that Real Madrid would want me to play with them it almost felt like, “I have made it. I’m gonna be one of these kids”, you know? “I’m gonna be the best one.” The best one I can be, the best version of myself I can be. So that was pretty exciting at the moment, yeah.


James: How did your parents react to this opportunity?

Ignacio: Well, my Mum doesn’t like football that much so she was obviously very excited for us but it just wasn’t anything compared with what I assume what my Dad was feeling. He was always very into it and he always wanted us to be football players. So I think that for him it must have been...probably he was the person who was most excited about all this.

James: Was your Mum skeptical or hopeful?

Ignacio: I think at first she was hopeful. I think at first she was hopeful, well that it’s a good thing that Real Madrid comes for your kids, you know, offers them what seemed to be like an education, they pay you, they give you a residence, you’re gonna be there with other kids, you’re gonna be well taken care of. At least that’s all the promises they make you before you actually getting in there.

James: After Ignacio and his parents met with the Academy at the clubs training facilities, he was offered a contract - and he signed. [Pen scribble FX] All costs included. Flights, relocation, school fees, the works. He was about to join one of the best football academies in the world. The dream had become reality.


James: So, day one. You arrive at the academy. What was that feeling like?

Ignacio: 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, that was just the first day. Then when we started training and everything, things went a little bit better at first.

James: But it didn’t take long for Ignacio to learn that life at the Academy wasn’t going to be easy….

James: At what point did things start to get difficult for you?

Ignacio: Well, I just think that it was probably when I got injured for the third or fourth time. That’s when I was realising that well, this is just not normal, you know? This is the fourth time this year that I’m getting injured.

And it was basically this lifestyle. And the fact that I failed some of my exams, you know? Despite that fact that I was studying really hard. I was injured, I wasn’t playing that much, that’s when I realised that things should work in a different way.

James: This wasn’t simply a combination of bad luck and Ignacio just struggling to adapt to a new training schedule. Rather, the way the Academy was run just wasn’t sufficient.

Ignacio explains how a typical day at the Real Madrid Youth Academy would play out.

Ignacio: We woke up at around 8 in the morning. We got ready, had breakfast and then the courses started, our classes started. Get a little break to have lunch at 2pm. And after that I’d say something around 5:45pm, we came back to our residence for around 30 seconds, picked up everything we needed. Picked up a pack of three cookies and a small vanilla shake before training. That’s what they gave us before a hard training session. And we had to catch the bus, 45 minutes to Real Madrid City, train for around 2 hours. We had to, of course, wait for some children here and there so that meant that we got even later back home. 45 minutes back, we had dinner and then the rest of the night was for us, basically.

James: They would train until 10pm on weeknights while weekends were occupied with matches. Meaning there was little time for studying - or sleep for that matter.

Ignacio: For example, when we had projects, intensive class work or final exams or maybe even during normal term time exams, that meant that when you got home that you had to stay up until 5 in the morning, 3 in the morning, 4 in the morning. And I remember that one day after another, if you went to bed at say 4 or 5 in the morning because you had an exam the next day, they obviously woke you up at 8 again. And then the whole routine started again.

James: It became clear that there was a serious lack of balance to life at the Academy. Remember, these are just teenagers. Kids that are recruited solely for the purpose of developing professional footballers. They’re expected to train like professionals but without an adequate diet, which only makes athlethes more vulnerable to injuries and recovery more difficult. And for all the emphasis on football training, most of the kids aren’t expected to make it. Yet, their education was secondary.

Ignacio: You get very little sleep and you are forced to train at a very high level. It just means that at some point the rope is gonna break.

It also affected my self esteem because I realised that I was getting injured numerous times and that meant that you were basically put behind your teammates because they were consolidating their position, they were earning the spot while you were still trying to come back from an injury.

And therefore that marked a little the difference between the children who were willing to continue their studies and the children who were not just willing to do anything after they came back from training.

And 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.


James: As a teenager, Ignacio says he didn’t have the capacity to properly express how he was feeling. 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.

Ignacio: I just didn’t really know how to express it. I didn’t know how to create this idea in my head that things were just not running the way they should. It basically just builds a pressure in your head saying “all these people are supporting you” and you just can’t let them down. Unconsciously, that puts a lot of pressure on the mind of a 15 year old.

James: 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 hearing Ignacio’s personal experience, it can also be interpreted in a different way.

Ignacio: You’re obviously being treated like a professional football player, because if you’re not good enough they’re obviously going to sell you, they’re going to cut you. You’re basically a 15 year old in a business.

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?

James: At the end of the season, after a year at the Academy, Ignacio was told he wasn’t good enough to stay and was let go. He says he felt liberated. And all that fear of disappointing his family?...

Ignacio: At the end of the day that is completely unjustified because when you come back, they’re equally proud of you because you have braved all that and you have been there. And at the end of the day all that matters is your family and your family will never be disappointed with you.

Today I thank god that my parents were the ones who were pushing me to continue studying because I don’t know what would have happened to me if I would have continued playing football. But if I had decided to stop studying and then any injury could have taken my future away from me.

James: Fortunately, the Academy did help Ignacio get a football scholarship at a university in the United States. In contrast, it was a much better experience.

James: You’ve spent some time in the United States. How does the college system compare in relation to how student athletes are guided through their development?

Ignacio: Well, I was very surprised when I got to the States because the first thing my coach told me is if you don’t study you’re not going to be eligible to play. And on top of that, I’m going to make you come to my office and you’re going to study infront of me until you pass all your courses.

James: What would you say then to parents who are looking to help their kids follow a career in football and maybe are looking at different academies that are out there? Do you think there needs to be more awareness about how a lot of these programs are run?

Ignacio: I think there definitley needs to be more awareness because parents just see the beautiful side of it, right? When Real Madrid comes over and tells you your kid is going to get an education, he’s gonna get paid, he’s gonna live in a residence and he’s gonna bet fed, he’s gonna be well fed and he’s gonna be well taken care of.

The reality is just not even close to that. But when a child is 15 he just takes things as it is without thinking if he should be treated in that way. So I really think that these big clubs should really take into account the interests of the child and that’s what parents should be demanding from them.

James: Despite everything he went through, Ignacio 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.

Ignacio: 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.

James: And as for his love of Read Madrid, Ignacio sees the institution and the team as two seperate things. And he still considers himself a fan.

Ignacio: They’re two completely different things. Plus, I have friends playing the first team of Real Madrid, as is Morata, Carvajal, Lucas Vasquez, you know? And I’m obviously rooting for them. It just makes me prouder that they actually managed to make it and I still enjoy watching Real Madrid play. And I think will always do because I’m a Real Madrid fan since day one.

James: Ignacio Martin went on to graduate from University of Delaware before completing a Master of Arts in Human Rights in the Netherlands. In September 2016 he began a law degree at University College London.


James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to Ignacio. This episode was inspired by a great article he wrote for You’ll find a link in the show notes and on our website.

Music featured in this episode comes from Chris Zabriskie, Broke For Free, Scott Holmes and Little Glass Men under Creative Commons.

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