Until 1989, Real Sociedad had a strict policy of only selecting players who had grown up in the province of Guipúzcoa in the Basque Country. That rigorous approach brought them great success – they were crowned champions of Spain in 1981 and 1982 with a team full homegrown players – but, when the trophies dried up, they decided to cast the net further afield when scouting for new talent.
The arrival of John Aldridge from Liverpool steered the club into a new direction. The Liverpudlian divided opinions in San Sebastián, where “foreigner go home” was daubed around the city. However, he soon won over the locals with 40 goals in 75 games. The club have been turning to foreign players ever since, but their commitment to their academy remains intact. There are 10 academy graduates in the current first-team squad and every starting 11 must contain at least four academy players.
The Zubieta academy sits in the countryside five miles south of San Sebastián. As I make the trek to the training facilities through woodland and farms, the unmistakable smells of nature carve into the wintry air. When locals nod hello, I half expect to hear the usual “Ayup” I hear while walking on the Yorkshire Dales, but am instead greeted in Euskara, the language of the Basque Country. Just like Yorkshire, the sun doesn’t come out all that often around these parts.
I am not in Zubieta long before academy director Luki Iriarte is gushing about Antoine Griezmann, the academy’s most famous son. “When this lad played, different things happened. He was just different. So tiny, so skinny. We looked to protect him a lot. We just knew he was special. He couldn’t find a club in France, having trialled in quite a few. The French way of playing didn’t suit him – it’s more physical and they looked for bigger players – but his football IQ, awareness and vision of play were things that we placed above his lack of physical components. We knew he was different.”
The coaches I meet are keen to stress that the club has a “long-term vision”. They believe in allowing youngsters to have a childhood and find their own way to Zubieta, should they choose to come. The youngest age group in the academy is the Under-13s. “We start late as we want them to have the chance to be kids first,” says Zubieta.
“We have endless contact with their schools and in their physical education classes they will work on six different sports every year up until the age of 12. At school, they do three individual sports and three collective sports each year. Are we 100% certain that all the PE teachers are doing things well? No. But we know the kid that is coming here at 12 years old has played handball, basketball, done cycling and many other sports. We believe that all this helps us to have an open-minded, more flexible individual.”
Real Sociedad are in constant contact with more than 70 clubs in the Gipuzkoa region, but do not begin to look at a young player until he is at least 10 years old. “Yes, we run the risk that neighbouring clubs will pick them up during the younger years, but our message to them is: ‘Stay in your environment. Stay with your family. Stay with your friends. And if you feel like you’re ready to leave all of those behind, then you can come to Real Sociedad.’
“Down in Madrid and Valencia – and most of the continent these days – there are tournaments for Under-7s. We don’t believe in that. By bringing players in later, we stand less chance of getting it wrong. Of course, there are kids who look good when very young and have the profile to win us youth tournaments, but do they have the profile of a player who will play in our first team? I’m convinced in our methodology a little bit more every single day.”
La Real certainly try to put people first. Almost all of the club’s players from the B team down are studying or have already graduated. Those still studying for their high school exams must to score 80% as a final grade and the club has employed seven teachers to help students achieve that.
“Every person is a project,” says Iriarte. “We value and protect them and we have their needs and what’s best for them in mind with the intention of giving them the best chance to get into the first team of La Real. A first division sporting director once said to me: ‘Luki, if you create a load of engineers who are good people, but no footballers, you’ll get sacked.’ He’s right. Our priority is to make football players, but if they are good people too then even better.”
Out on pitches, slickened by the Basque rain, we watch the morning sessions of both the first team and B team. Both sides are coached by graduates of the academy, with former player Imanol Alguacil managing the first team and Xabi Alonso in charge of the reserves. The majority of the staff, from analysts to fitness coaches and physios, passed through Zubieta. “It’s important to have La Real people around the place,” says Iriarte. “Imanol Alguacil started here as a player and developed as a coach in our academy before going through the ranks and finally taking over the first team. He knows this building inside out. He’s a great reference for our coaches. He knows the player, the philosophy, the environment, the culture, the language.
“Xabi Alonso had the opportunity to move on, playing for the best coaches and winning the World Cup, Champions Leagues and league titles around the world. All these experiences are fantastic for our young players to learn from. The academy coaches here understand that the process is what’s important, not only the work of Imanol and Xabi. Alonso has all of the best players from our academy and Imanol has 10 in his team – and at least four starting every game – all because of the work done by everyone who is part of the process from U13 upwards.”
From the kitmen and chefs, to Alguacil and Alonso, there is a real family atmosphere ingrained into the Zubieta walls. “The base of our success is how the people feel about the club,” says academy co-ordinator Mitxel Badiola. “We have three pillars that must be in connection: the person, the student and the player – and they all need to go in the same direction at the same speed to reach the top here.”
To reinforce his point, Badiola refers to Mikel Oyarzabal, the winger who has combined playing for Real Sociedad and Spain with acquiring his degree in business at the San Sebastián University. “Orya was always going to arrive where he has arrived. He went at 100% into every game. He was a captain and leader off the pitch too. His values have taken him to where he is now.”
With academy sessions now taking place under the rolling Basque countryside, the winter air has a bite to it and the ball is flying as youngsters look to attack and create openings whenever in possession. Not a single player has difficulty managing the ball, from goalkeepers to strikers. “You wouldn’t have seen this up here in the 1980s,” says Aitor Zulaika, who coaches the Under-19s. “Every Basque pitch was covered in mud and football was more like rugby. Basque players were big, strong lads who could survive on those pitches. The opposite if you went to Seville; you couldn’t find a pitch with a patch of grass left due to the heat. Now, with artificial pitches and better facilities across the country, Spanish football has changed. The types of players have changed and Real Sociedad has changed.”
“There’s only 700,000 people in Gipuzkoa,” continues Zulaika. “Most of our players are from towns and villages. They have a different way of being. They are street people and street players. Of the 16 academy players in the first team in 2009, 15 were from villages and towns – only Xabi Prieto was from San Sebastián. That’s the kind of kid who tends to do well here. With football – and the world in general – being more controlled by the day, we try to go the other way. The village kids who come later on at Under-13, with their own personality, are who make us different. They make us Real Sociedad.”
• This article is from Caño Football
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