Remembering Florentino Pérez’s Pavones, the players Real Madrid forgot

Remembering Florentino Pérez’s Pavones, the players Real Madrid forgot

As featured on Guardian Sport

“POOR OLD PACO PAVON, an honest but not exceptional central defender, had the misfortune that his name was seconded to Perez’s scheme. The Pavones were never given the time or encouragement to flourish.” Graham Hunter.

Florentino Pérez had finally done it. At the second time of asking, he had cracked the Real Madrid presidency, replacing Lorenzo Sanz and taking control of a club known for its pristine white colours and equally gleaming trophy cabinet. He had campaigned for the role, as all future presidents do, with a number of attractive promises. One was to tackle the club’s financial difficulties. The other was to sign Luís Figo.

Thus, it was a grand gesture but also a promise well kept when Figo arrived at the Bernabéu from Barcelona in the summer of 2000. The move had as much do with psychology as tactics. In signing Figo, Pérez had broken the world transfer record, got one over Barcelona and instantly repaid his voters all at once. It was a wonderful time for Madridistas.

This was only the beginning though. For every year that followed, Pérez became more adamant in his pursuit of iconic individual players. What was the motive? To maintain club tradition, apparently. Long before the arrival of Pérez, Real Madrid’s history was littered with a vivid array of international superstars: Ferenc Puskás from Hungary, Alfredo Di Stéfano from Argentina, Raymond Kopa from France and Hugo Sánchez from Mexico.

They are an oft-told chapter of the club’s success story and Pérez seemed to continuously read that chapter to himself as he brought in Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham and so on. They would become known as Los Galácticos, but Perez’s concept was originally called “Zidanes y Pavones”, with the underlying principle being to intertwine world class signings like Zidane, with home-grown talent like Francisco Pavón.

The “Zidanes” were otherworldly. Alien beings brought in to entertain, excite and enrich. People from all corners of the globe knew them and may even have bought the shirt to prove it. They were memorable and left an indelible mark on Real Madrid history. The “Pavones”, however, were flawed, entirely human and ultimately forgotten. They were the twisted sideshow in a flawed experiment.

The tradition that Pérez bought into with his luxury transfer policy was only a small element of Real history. This history also includes talented young Spanish players signed by the club, such as Francisco Gento who, just like Puskás and Di Stéfano, was a key member of Real Madrid’s five consecutive European Cup wins from 1956 to 1960. Gento was brought to the club before he had played a full season with Racing Santander; he would become a Real Madrid legend.

The final – and perhaps less told – portion of the club’s history is written by La Fabrica (The Factory), the youth system that has played an integral role in shaping their success. Not only have great players come through this system, but great teams have been built upon its very foundations.

When Real Madrid beat Partizan Belgrade in the 1966 European Cup final, every player in the team was Spanish. This was still a group of top-class footballers, but it was assembled on a more local scale. Furthermore, three of that all-Spanish line-up came through La Fabrica. Manuel Velázquez, Fernando Serena and Ramón Grosso all arrived in the first team through the club’s feeder team – Plus Ultra, or Castilla as they are now known.

As Real Madrid’s “B” team, Castilla play an integral role in bringing through the club’s finest young talent, preparing them for the rigours of first-team football. Although nominally a reserve team, Castilla had its own defining era in the 1980s.

In 1980 Castilla met their more famous parents in the final of the Copa del Rey, having knocked out the likes of Athletic Club and Real Sociedad. Appropriately, the feeder team were duly thrashed 6-1. Later that same decade, however, under the management of former Real legend Amancio Amaro, Castilla competed at the top of the Segunda División, even winning the league in 1984. They were ineligible for promotion due to Real’s presence in La Liga, but several members of this great Castilla side would go on to play a huge contributing role in one of Real Madrid’s most successful teams.

Emilio Butragueño played for Castilla before his promotion to the first team in 1984. A goalscorer known as El Buitre (The Vulture), Butragueño headed a pack of five home-grown players known as “La Quinta del Buitre”, which consisted of him, Michel, Manolo Sanchís, Martin Vázquez and Miguel Pardeza. The group were promoted by Di Stéfano, who was then manager.

Apart from Pardeza, this group became frequent cogs in a Real Madrid team that dominated Spanish football, winning five consecutive league titles between 1986 and 1990, as well as two consecutive UEFA Cups in 1985 and 1986. Butragueño and co. were not the only players to go from Fabrica to first-team around this period. Others included Chendo, Jesús Solana and Ricardo Gallego. Put simply, it was an extremely productive time for Real Madrid’s youth system which interwove itself into a prolonged period of authoritative control atop Spanish football.

When Pérez entered the Real presidential arena in 2000, the club had just won the Champions League. Iker Casillas, Guti and Raúl had already established themselves as a part of the club’s core. The trio had come through La Fabrica, and all were in their early-20s. This didn’t fit the Pérez agenda, however. He wanted international stars for continental success in order to create a hegemonic global brand fuelled by merchandising.

La Fabrica had been historically effective, but it wasn’t sexy. Record-breaking transfer fees, gargantuan salaries and instantly recognisable names were the new necessities to push the Real Madrid brand. When “Zidanes y Pavones” became an idea, it was instantly superseded by Los Galácticos. The Pavones didn’t stand a chance. “Now that Beckham’s coming there are finally going to be two good-looking guys in the team … I felt so lonely being the only handsome player in such an ugly team.” Roberto Carlos.

When Roberto Carlos said the above, he probably did so with a cheeky wink and a dimpled smile, but his statement rang alarmingly close to the truth. Under the auspices of Pérez’s spending policy, looks and ability were disturbingly close in terms of importance. Real Madrid had to have a style and Perez almost obliterated the club’s substance in pursuit of it.

In a telling series of events in the summer of 2003, the club deliberately abstained from joining the race to sign Ronaldinho because he was “too ugly”. Instead Beckham was signed; in spite of the fact the club already possessed a world-class right winger in Figo. The same summer Claude Makélélé was allowed to leave for Chelsea in a cataclysmic misunderstanding of the French defensive midfielder’s importance.

The club reaped the financial rewards of Beckham’s signature, but on the field of play cohesion was found wanting. Makélélé wanted greater pay parity with his cohorts; Zidane was reportedly paid six times more than him. Pérez, however, allowed Makélélé to leave as he didn’t feel defensive players justified the same wages as their attacking peers. The decision may have made the club richer, but it left the team imbalanced.

Every great football team needs a strong defence but, just as highlight reels are easier to collate when featuring goals rather than well-timed tackles, shirts are much easier to shift when they have the name of a prolific forward or mazy midfielder on the back. Signing a good, solid defender may bring a sigh of relief, but the queues at the club shop will invariably be shorter.

Pérez’s initial years of adding one superstar to an already successful team yielded positive results. The club won LaLiga and the Supercopa in his first 12 months as president, before adding the Champions League, European Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup the following season. Another league and Supercopa followed, but eventually the negligence of the president’s ideas took its toll.

Francisco Pavón was once considered a promising young central defender, though his name would soon become synonymous with unfulfilled expectations. Promoted from Castilla in 2001, he soon became an important member of the first-team, though the reasoning for his increased importance was not portrayed accurately in Pérez’s grand “Zidanes y Pavones” vision.

While the club freewheeled around the globe touting their brand and selling shirts, the shortfalls of the ideology beneath the brand strategy would inevitably unfold on the pitch. The club were promoting youth, yes, but this was no organically eclectic mix of quality players both bred and bought. The youths, like Pavón, were merely filling the gaps – financially, and on the pitch.

The huge spending on attacking players had to be balanced somewhere, after all. In the same summer that Makélélé departed, Fernando Hierro followed suit. Suddenly Real’s defence was threadbare, so the Pavones filled in. That year Sid Lowe brought the truth home pointedly, saying that the reason behind the mixing of Pavones with Zidanes was “a way of saving money, of balancing the huge outlay on players like Becks by paying tiny salaries … for young players.”

Zidane remarked of the sale of Makélélé: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” It was a point that, directly or not, was aimed roughly in Pérez’s direction. If, as Zidane had suggested, his fellow Galácticos were the paint, then that surface was wearing thin.

Real Madrid suffered the consequences of such patchy squad management. Lacking in spine, the club stumbled through the proceeding years. The club went four years without domestic success between 2003 and 2007 and would fail to qualify beyond the last 16 of the Champions League for seven consecutive seasons after 2004. This was a rough period, no doubt bearing the brunt of Pérez’s half-baked utopian vision. It was a vision that would leave its mark in other ways.

As well as a drought in silverware, the Galácticos era resulted in a wasted generation of youth team players. Some, evidently, were just not up to the task. Some were perhaps asked to do too much too soon. The remaining few may simply have found the conditions – playing the unappreciated role of “Pavones” to the star “Zidanes” – unworkable.

Whatever the reason for the failure of a generation, the prognosis was pretty clear. Real Madrid promoted their youngsters, but subsequently demeaned them. They were not considered a part of the club’s core, merely filler in positions deemed less important. This is proven if anything by the sheer number of defensive Pavones that found themselves utilised, in contrast to a real scarcity in their more attack-minded peers.

The lost generation included right-back Oscar Miñambres, left-back Raúl Bravo, central defenders Pavón, Rubén and Álvaro Mejía; defensive midfielder Borja Fernández and striker Javier Portillo. Raúl Bravo showed flickers of making the grade. He covered in defence when needed, but found it impossible to budge the established Roberto Carlos at his favoured left-back position. Instead, he often found himself playing at centre-half, because his fellow youth team graduate, Rubén, was simply inept. Of Rubén, Sid Lowe said: “Manager Queiroz … rates Rubén so highly that he’s chosen a converted left-back who disappointed at Leeds [Raúl Bravo] instead.”

Bravo would amass 14 Spain caps, despite that instantly forgettable spell in the Premier League, but would never force a regular first-team place at Real. Ruben would fail in that quest too, eventually taking a tour of Spain that would take in Cantabria (Racing Santander), Galicia (Celta Vigo), the island of Mallorca (Real Mallorca) and Navarre (Osasuna).

Mejía and Borja proved temporarily useful but easily discardable utility men. Mejía found game time across the defence, while Borja was perhaps the only man to find real solace in Makélélé’s exit. Mejía eventually dropped down the divisions with Murcia before jetting off to France, Turkey, Greece and Qatar. Borja would make himself an important player with Valladolid.

Up front, Portillo was for a time considered Real Madrid’s hottest prospect. He was a prodigious scorer of goals at youth level, even breaking a record previously held by Raúl. It boded well for Portillo, perhaps more so than any other graduate making the step up. In his first full campaign, he scored 14 goals in 23 appearances. It was a positive start to the club’s new local hero, but circumstances would rapidly deteriorate in the following years.

After a goal-shy second season, Portillo was farmed out on loan to Fiorentina and then Club Brugge before finally moving on permanently for Gimnàstic de Tarragona. Now retired, Portillo spent the years since his Real release bouncing between Spain’s first and second tiers, unable to live up to his early billing.

Miñambres had a short fling with first team action at Real before a loan move to Espanyol. Unfortunately, a knee injury curtailed the full-back’s chances of progress, then halted his career altogether. He retired, aged 26, due to pain in his knee that made playing unbearable. He is now a tobacconist in Móstoles. And then there is Pavón.

Pavón was arguably the most prosperous of the Fabrica products of the Pérez era. However, this was expected – he was after all the poster boy of the Pérez vision. In Pavón’s breakthrough season, 2001/02, Real won the Champions League. He played a part throughout the competition, though he was benched for the final against Bayer Leverkusen with the more experienced Hierro and Iván Helguera preferred in central defence.

Pavón remained at the club for five more seasons, making over 100 appearances. His promise petered out before he moved on to Zaragoza. His career eventually finished in France with Arles-Avignon, where he was reunited with Mejía. He and his fellow Pavones had been gradually airbrushed from Real Madrid’s glamorous history.

It is a fair question to ask: were the Pavones that bad, or were they failed by the times? The reality is probably somewhere between both, though given the rejection of quality Fabrica graduates in future, the truth probably wavers closer to the latter.

Graham Hunter opined that they were not given a genuine opportunity. It’s a viewpoint that holds weight when also considering that, following the Pavones, several more notable players would also fail to make headway in Real’s first team.

Atlético Madrid and Spain right-back Juanfran was one such player. Another was Manchester United’s Juan Mata. Both were allowed to leave for La Liga teams, Osasuna and Valencia respectively, from where they would go on to forge careers at the top level of European football. Javi García is another example of a player whose status grew upon leaving the Bernabéu.

Others include strikers Roberto Soldado – who became one of Spanish football’s most prolific marksmen at Valencia – and José Callejón, who now scores regularly for Napoli in Serie A and is a Spain international. Another striker, Álvaro Morata, was sold to Italian giants Juventus, and only recently found his way back to Spain.

Florentino Pérez returned to the Real Madrid presidency in 2009 and his immediate movements confirmed a return to the old Galáctico ways. That summer he signed Cristiano Ronaldo for a world record £80m and Brazilian playmaker Kaká for the relatively paltry sum of around £60m. More recently, however, there have been promising developments for a select few Fabrica graduates under Zinedine Zidane.

In winning La Decima the club realised a long sought-after objective, though this was primarily achieved through financial bludgeoning in the purchase of the world’s best players. However, instead of taking stock and learning from past mistakes, in the summer of 2014 Pérez and Real veered uncomfortably close to old ways.

With excitement surrounding the club once again, Pérez decided Xabi Alonso was no longer truly relevant, selling him to Bayern Munich in a decision eerily reminiscent of his sale of Makélélé just over a decade ago. Ángel Di María – their rampaging attacking midfielder and a crucial cog in Ancelotti’s Champions League-winning side – was also sold. Toni Kroos and James Rodríguez were brought in as replacements.

They were transfers that left the club with little by way of protection in midfield, while also posing a tactical dilemma as to how to feature Rodríguez alongside Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco without compromising the team’s balance. Furthermore, the deals were struck at a time when Real were blatantly in greater need of a central defender than a creative midfielder. For many it was an unfathomably frustrating case of déjà vu.

Pérez’s ideas continue to obscure the story of Real Madrid – a club with a proud yet understated history of nurturing talent from within. In the short-term, signing the world’s most marketable players may work, but it has negative strategic connotations, namely the obsolescence of youth. If you wish to obtain proof of that, you need look no further than poor old Paco Pavón.

By Blair Newman @TheBlairNewman

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