Real Madrid’s ‘Castilla core’ don’t get the hype – but what they bring is special


Followers of Real Madrid’s youth academy on social media received a nice reminder last Monday evening.

“It’s 12 years since Real Madrid Castilla’s promotion to the Segunda Division,” read a post on X. “Do you recognise any of the faces?”

Keen Madrid fans would have identified much younger versions of Dani Carvajal, Nacho, Lucas Vazquez and Joselu in the accompanying photo, all celebrating one of their first shared successes together.

All four played for Real Madrid Castilla (the club’s reserve side, made up of emerging youth players) during a 2011-12 season that ended with promotion to Spain’s second tier.

Twelve years later to the week, all four are in the Madrid first-team squad now preparing for Saturday’s Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund. Higher profile team-mates such as Jude Bellingham, Vinicius Junior and Toni Kroos might end up taking the headlines should Madrid win a record-extending 15th European Cup/Champions League, but the homegrown quartet’s contributions will surely still be vital — and especially followed by many Madrid fans.

Having such a strong local core, who understand the club’s values and demands, is important for Madrid’s supporters and self-image.

And a victory at Wembley this weekend will be hugely celebrated by all the members of that Castilla team from more than a decade ago.

Some of that Castilla side were local lads who had already been at Madrid for a long time — Nacho and Carvajal joined at 11 and 10 years old respectively. Others were recruited from further afield in the Spanish game — Joselu signed from Celta Vigo aged 19, Vazquez arrived at 16 from the Ural youth club in La Coruna, both in the north west of the country.

Even though Nacho, Carvajal, Joselu and Vazquez played key roles in that promotion in 2011-12, none were the team’s most hyped stars. Attackers Alvaro Morata and Jese Rodriguez were on faster tracks to then coach Jose Mourinho’s Madrid first team. The Castilla squad also contained many other promising youngsters who have gone on to enjoy solid La Liga careers, including Nacho’s younger brother Alex Fernandez with Cadiz, Denis Cheryshev with Valencia and Villarreal, and Juanfran Moreno with Real Betis and Deportivo La Coruna.

“We’re talking about the best generation of youth players of all time (at Madrid),” Juanfran tells The Athletic. “During my four years, there were 30 or 40 players who ended up playing in La Liga, as well as those now going for another Champions League this weekend.

“With full respect for the ‘Quinta del Buitre’ (Madrid’s 1980s youth side with future senior stars Michel, Emilio Butragueno, Manolo Sanchis, Miguel Pardeza and Rafael Martin Vazquez), there’s never been anything like it — and never will again.”

Everyone on that successful Castilla side dreamed of playing regularly for Madrid at senior level, winning multiple La Liga and Champions League trophies.

The reality was the club’s first team of that time was packed with superstars from back to front, president Florentino Perez invested heavily each summer in new galacticos, and Mourinho preferred established senior players while competing with Pep Guardiola’s at-their-peak Barcelona side.

The first of that Castilla side to leave was Carvajal, sold to Bayer Leverkusen for €5million in July 2012, without having played for the first team. Although not everyone at the Bernabeu agreed with the decision to let him go.

“I played ahead of Carvajal (on the right wing) and knew I had an aeroplane behind me — I knew he was going to make history with Real Madrid,” Juanfran says. “Mourinho killed me for saying in public that I didn’t know why he (Carvajal) went to Bayer. I knew he was ready for the first team from his first day at Castilla. It was so clear.”

Carvajal was only 20 then but settled quickly in Germany, starting 31 of the 34 league games. After Madrid activated a €6.5million buyback clause the next summer, he won a first-team spot under Mourinho’s replacement Carlo Ancelotti, and played all 120 minutes of the final as Madrid beat city neighbours Atletico to win their 10th Champions League the following May.

Joselu scored on his La Liga debut in May 2011 and again in his only appearance for Mourinho’s first team the following season, both as a substitute. He was competing for a spot with Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, as well as Morata and Jese, and Madrid accepted a €6million offer from Hoffenheim, another German side, in that same summer of 2012.

The big target man then spent years bouncing around the Bundesliga, Premier League and La Liga, before gaining more recognition in more recent seasons as a regular scorer for Alaves and then Espanyol.

“I always liked Joselu a lot,” says Tomas Mejias, a goalkeeper who played with him for Castilla and is now at Spanish second-tier side Cartagena. “Joselu’s finishing was spectacular with both his feet and his head. Football has evolved but he has also evolved, and the fashion of the finisher is coming back, with more transitional football, more direct.”

Joselu celebrates scoring for Madrid in La Liga in May 2011 (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

A right winger in his early career, Vazquez was more often a substitute than a starter during that historic Castilla promotion, with coach Alberto Toril preferring to have Juanfran in his initial XI.

“Lucas was a great kid. I have special affection for him,” Juanfran says. “At 17 or so, he had many problems — hamstrings and other injuries. He was super at training, like a beast, but (the injuries) generated a doubt around him. He was my backup but I knew he’d go a long way.”

It took a loan move to Barcelona-based Espanyol in 2014-15, when he scored four goals and had seven assists in 39 games across the league and Copa del Rey, for Vazquez to establish himself at La Liga level.

Espanyol exercised their option to sign him for €500,000, but the next day Madrid bought him back for double that amount — just after his 24th birthday. Less than 12 months later, he scored the opening penalty of the shootout that decided the 2016 Champions League final in Madrid’s favour, also against Atletico.

Nacho was the only one of the four to stick at the Bernabeu.

Given his La Liga debut by Mourinho in a 6-3 away win against Valencia in April 2011, he has played 363 times for the first team over the past 13 years, helping to win 25 trophies, including five Champions Leagues and four La Liga titles, and has been Madrid’s captain since Benzema left last summer.

“With Nacho, you could see he had something different — his ability to concentrate, read the game, his aggression, physicality,” says Juanfran. “He’s very fast, too, and can play on both flanks. If he’d left Madrid, he would have been a starter for any team in the world.”

Vazquez, Carvajal and Nacho in January 2018 (Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

Many of their former Castilla team-mates agree that circumstances and good fortune play a huge role in a player’s career, as well as other factors out of your control.

Through the past decade, Madrid have also raised significant money selling academy graduates — including €88million in total for Morata moving to Juventus in 2014 and, after returning to the Bernabeu two years later, to Chelsea in 2017, €25m from Jese’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in 2016, and more recently €43m from Achraf Hakimi’s 2020 switch to Inter Milan.

“There’s a question of luck and timing,” says Jorge Casado, a former Castilla full-back now back in Madrid as captain of third-tier Rayo Majadahonda after spells with Betis, Zaragoza and in Greek football. “It’s good to leave and gain experience, like Lucas, with the club keeping control. Carvajal’s move could have gone badly, and he’d not have made his career back here. A contrary example is Hakimi, maybe they should have had more patience with him —  look at the career he is having (now with PSG).”

It is also difficult to really know how far a promising young player can go until they are given a chance at the top level.

Oscar Plano was a younger member of that 2011-12 Castilla squad who has played in La Liga for Real Valladolid and Elche in recent seasons. He says that each individual reacts differently when they are surrounded by world-class team-mates and face elite demands on their professional and personal lives.

“At that time, nobody thought that Carvajal, Nacho or Joselu were going to win a Champions League, but time has put each of us on our own path,” Plano says. “When you train with the best, it shows in the rhythm, the level, the demands. Honestly, the elite changes everything, it puts you in your place.”

Not everyone can accept the role of squad player, even at global giants such as Madrid. Nacho and Vazquez are still very proud competitors but accepted they would not start every week, and had to be ready to contribute when called upon.

“Everyone knows their role, but they also know that, with 60 games (per season), there’ll be chances for everyone, and you have to be ready,” says Juanfran.

“The players who reach this level look after all the little things, even if you are not playing. Lucas did not play regularly for Castilla, but you saw how hard he worked and you said: ‘That b*****d is going to make it.’ The good players never just get comfortable. That is why they have lasted there so long.”

A decade ago, the leaders in Madrid’s senior dressing room were big-name superstars — Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo — with egos to match.

Recent years have brought an evolution in the squad, with other huge personalities including Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Benzema moving on and younger emerging stars arriving, such as Vinicius Junior, Federico Valverde and Bellingham.

The long-serving Carvajal, Vazquez and Nacho, along with Luka Modric and Kroos, make up its current leadership group. They are not afraid to call out team-mates who are not making the required effort at training, and they set examples of intensity and competitiveness that are highly valued by Ancelotti and the Bernabeu hierarchy.

Those who have been through the club’s Valdebebas training base as teenagers argue that this attitude was instilled during their formative years in that youth system.

“Nacho and Carvajal’s attitude and professionalism in the day-to-day is an example for their team-mates,” says Casado. “Nacho is an example, as a player and as a person: well-mannered, correct, a gentleman, never a wrong word, a leader; always gives his level, and ends up playing a lot of games. You can see their influence, their contagious motivation to keep improving, keep winning trophies.”

Ancelotti and Nacho after Madrid’s semi-final victory over Bayern Munich last month (Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

The homegrown core also feel a responsibility to help new arrivals understand what it takes to succeed at Madrid, whether that be Brazilian duo Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo, Turkish teenager Arda Guler or Englishman Bellingham.

“Bellingham arrived into a family (last summer),” says Juanfran. “They have a good ‘father’, in Ancelotti, as we had in our day with Toril. The dressing room is very healthy, very good. With the homegrown players, and those from outside, there’s no scandals, no distractions. Florentino has done very well with that, like so many other things.”

Another to arrive (back) this season was Joselu, who famously attended the club’s most recent Champions League final, against Liverpool in Paris two years ago, as a Madrid supporter. His infectious enthusiasm and friendliness, including speaking English with Bellingham in his early months after signing from Dortmund, is much valued in the dressing room.

“Joselu has been a Real Madrid fan since he was a kid,” Juanfran says. “In Coruna (they were Deportivo team-mates in the 2016-17 season), we watched Madrid games together. Now he’s living the dream of a fan, more than a player.”

None of this would matter too much if Madrid’s canteranos (academy graduates) were not producing on the pitch. Although he’s a backup, starting less than half of his 48 appearances in all competitions, Joselu has scored 17 goals this season — most famously the dramatic late double to beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final second leg after coming on as an 81st-minute substitute when Madrid were trailing 3-2 on aggregate.

Joselu is mobbed by team-mates after his winner against Bayern (David Ramos/Getty Images)

Finally free of the injury issues that have hampered him in recent seasons, Carvajal has had the best campaign of his career, scoring five goals and racking up the same number of assists. As his backup at right-back, Vazquez has made 37 appearances, contributing three goals and eight assists — in April’s decisive 3-2 La Liga Clasico victory against Barcelona, he scored, won a penalty and created Bellingham’s late winner.

Nacho was not particularly happy when Ancelotti preferred to use midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni as cover in defence earlier in the season, but he kept battling and has started 10 of the 12 Champions League games. As club captain, he has already lifted the league trophy and led the celebrations afterwards at Madrid’s city-centre Cibeles fountain.

Now all four of the former Castilla team-mates will be at Wembley on Saturday, aiming to add another Champions League to the club’s trophy room.

“You look back 10 or 12 years and all of us were within touching distance of the dream of playing at Real Madrid,” Casado says.

“But you could not imagine this, all these trophies, and a Champions League final. I’m super-proud of them. On Sunday, I asked Nacho for a video, wishing happy birthday to the son of a friend of mine, and he sent it straight away.

“He’s a lovely guy, so normal. And you saw his face at Cibeles. It was a photo to frame. Imagine that (but) with the Champions League.”

Additional reporting: Mario Cortegana, Guillermo Rai

(Top photo: Oscar J. Barroso/Europa Press via Getty Images)

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