The Secrets of La Fabrica

Inside Real Madrid's academy, where winning is everything and only the strongest survive

By Richard Fitzpatrick / Photography by Ramiro Iriniz

November 3, 2016

Bleacher Report

As you fly over Madrid’s international airport, there is a patch of velvet-green playing fields enclosed by a string of road arteries and unending yellowish-brown scrubland. This little oasis is Ciudad Real Madrid, home to the great football club’s training ground and youth academy—the fabled La Fabrica.

Madrid's biggest stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, as well as club legend Raul—himself a graduate of La Fabrica—live nearby in the gated communities of La Finca. A handful of tomorrow’s football heroes are being meticulously sculpted in their image close by.

La Fabrica, which translates as "the factory," is home to 281 young players, including the four sons of first-team coach Zinedine Zidane. It is located in Valdebebas, an urban development on the northeast outskirts of the Madrid's city centre, where the facility set up its new home a decade ago.

The attention to detail at La Fabrica is remarkable. One hundred percent of the space used at Ciudad Real Madrid—which caters for 13 football teams, from seven-year-olds up to the club’s reserve team, Castilla—has direct natural lighting. All but one of the 12 floodlit pitches have the same dimensions as the playing surface at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Eight of these pitches use the same natural grass as the Bernabeu, which is imported from the Netherlands. The other four are laid with turf.

There is a weather station to regulate irrigation of the pitches and ensure the temperature of the buildings is constant. A hydrotherapy area includes four swimming pools, a sauna, two small baths (hot and cold) and a Turkish bath. Shiny, grey walkways guide you around the campus. Stylish water fountains at its entrance gush close to a discrete headstone of Alfredo Di Stefano, whose name adorns the 6,000-seat stadium where Castilla play. The gym at the facility is easily as long as a Luka Modric cross-field pass.

Academy players bring only their football boots to training. All their training gear is provided by staff, who take it away after each training session to be dry-cleaned. The residences at La Fabrica are equipped with games rooms and cinema, among other leisure amenities, to help the occupants unwind.

Flourishes everywhere suggest hotel-type luxury and relaxation, but the feeling in the air at this remote, sterile complex, which is protected by high railings and security guards, is like that of a space-program facility. It reeks of serious endeavour. There are vocations afoot within.

On arriving at Ciudad Real Madrid for their first day, academy players stop at a security turnstile on the first floor of the main building and are told as they pass through it that their moms and dads can’t go any further: "When you pass through this gate, you are no longer a son of your parents; you are now a player of Real Madrid."

The hard work has just begun.

One of 12 training pitches at La Fabrica.

La Fabrica's dream factory, like all elite football academies, is an unforgiving place. The average stay for those living at the facility is three years. Currently 82 boys (65 footballers and 17 basketball players), drawn from countries as far away as Norway and Paraguay, live full-time at Ciudad Real Madrid.

Ignacio Martin arrived in August 2008. He had just turned 15 and was accompanied by his 14-year-old brother Eduardo. They had won the football lottery. The brothers had been selected to join La Fabrica, leaving behind family life on the island of Tenerife.

Ignacio was awestruck. Some of the other boys he joined for his first training session at Madrid had already been exposed through Canal+ TV coverage of youth-team games. Now he was among them.

"I remember it was a shocking experience to walk inside and see that you’re going to be playing with these guys," he says. "They were already stars. If a player—who might be 13 or 14 years old—has a good tournament on television, the media will say, 'This guy is going to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo, the next big player in La Liga.'

"Seven of the Spain under-15 national team were in that locker room, including Jese, Enrique Castano and Diego Llorente, a centre-back for Malaga. Once you go into the locker room and you see you’re going to be playing alongside these guys, it’s such a weird feeling. You’re scared because you don’t know if you’re going to be good enough. At the same time, you’re ready to take the challenge."

The annual cost for a young player’s schooling and accommodation is between €35,000 to €40,000, excluding the maintenance costs for the club’s training facility at Valdebebas. When Ignacio signed up, the club covered all his accommodation costs, travel expenses and school fees for the year. They also gave him a monthly allowance of €200. For some overseas players, Madrid will pay to relocate their entire family to nearby apartments.

Image title

All academy players pass through the security turnstyle on arrival at La Fabrica.

Ignacio recalls team-mates being given €500 to spend each month on product catalogues from their brand sponsors. He heard of an older boy at the academy who’d bought a new Audi, even though he didn’t have a driving licence. The distraction of unimaginable riches comes early, and the best of the youngsters have to deal with premature star status.

"When you are very young, it suddenly changes from a game that you enjoy to a game that you get money for," says Roberto Rojas, who arrived as an 11-year-old, played with Real Madrid’s first team in the late 1990s and coached at the academy for six years. "When money is part of the game, you need to have your head very well furnished.

"You’re talking about players who don’t have the maturity to deal with all the things that can land on your head. One day, an interview with a journalist, another day you’re asked to go on TV. It’s not easy when you’re so young. Then things start happening like agents getting involved, they start earning big money. Then a young player starts getting a swelled head. It’s difficult to assimilate all these changes when you’re so young."

Ignacio and his youth-academy team-mates living at La Fabrica lived an ordered, structured existence. Training, school and meals, then bed. Lifelong friendships were forged, he says, and petty, perverse cruelties endured.

"I remember one day this kid peed in his bed while he was sleeping. That was the funniest thing, but I don’t know what that guy must have been feeling. His parents were far away. He was alone. He was around 13 at the time and he had all these guys around him making fun of him. Looking back it must have been really hard for him. How do you deal with that?

"Boys couldn’t bear the pressure. They got into fights with each other. Two guys—who, funnily enough, were good friends—used to lock the door and start beating each other up just because there was so much pressure, so much testosterone, rivalries, competition between players."

Image title

The class of 2015-16 pictured at La Fabrica, with goalkeepers in green.

To keep his spirits up, Ignacio would sing motivational songs to himself on the 45-minute ride to training—convincing himself over and over again that this was what he truly wanted. His season was pockmarked with injuries, among them tendinitis, pulled calf muscles and a sprained ankle. He partly attributes these problems to a poor diet and a patchy sleep pattern. He regrets that more effort wasn’t spent exploring the causes of players’ injuries, but does say the academy’s medics were always first-rate in their treatment.

La Fabrica's medical team’s resources are the envy of La Liga. "They have the most avant-garde facilities in their field," says Juan Muro Zabaleta, who worked as a physio for Real Madrid’s first team from 1992-2015. I have spoken with the physiotherapists of Getafe and Atletico Madrid because I know them, and they’ve told me that their facilities are not as high-tech as Real Madrid’s. It’s incredible—the facilities, the club, the hotel, the residences. Everything is first-class."

Dr. Jaime Abascal, La Fabrica’s medical doctor and a specialist in sports medicine at University Hospital of Sanitas La Moraleja, says muscle injuries—and particularly hamstring injuries—are the most common among the academy players. He singles out two advanced areas the medical team works on to get injured players back on the pitch as quickly as possible.

"In the last few years, there has been a lot of progress in regenerative therapies. There is enough scientific basis for us to practice these treatments. ...They’re producing better results."

Ignacio's results on the pitch weren’t good enough. At the end of the season, he was released—one of five or six from 23 in his squad to suffer the fate. He is now studying law at University College London in England. Almost half of his brother’s group were cut adrift the same summer. The pair were part of a numbers game.

"Boys couldn’t bear the pressure. They got into fights with each other. Two guys—who, funnily enough, were good friends—used to lock the door and start beating each other up just because there was so much pressure, so much testosterone, rivalries, competition between players."

Ignacio Martin

"We were racehorses," he says. "I knew it would be competitive, but I didn’t know it would be that competitive at such a young age. It was hard, insane competition. Players were competing against each other, making negative comments about each other even during a game instead of encouraging each other. It didn’t lead to good team chemistry.

"Even at such a young age, we were playing at psychological tactics with other guys who were competing for the same position as you on the field, say, as a right-back or centre-back. You tried to delegitimise the other guy as much as possible, making him insecure. Kids being bad, but with a purpose: 'I’m here to stay. I’ll work harder than you. I’ll do anything as long as I’m the one who stays and you are the one who leaves.'

"It was survival of the fittest."

Ignacio says the coaches were "indifferent" to the Darwinian struggle unfolding among their players. "I remember a game we had in Parla. I wasn’t a starter. I came on in the second half. My mind wasn’t in the game. I played badly. On the Monday after it, I was already dreading training.

"One of the comments my coach made that evening was: 'If it depended on me, I would send some of you guys back to your f--king home.' You being 15, and being away from your parents, knowing that your stay in Real Madrid was being jeopardised by your actions or your inability to cope or that you might not be as good as you thought you were, those comments can really hurt you."

A changing room at La Fabrica.

Paco Pavon, a central defender who picked up a Champions League winners' medal in 2002 and made over 100 appearances for Real Madrid, was 10 years old when he joined La Fabrica. He acknowledges the campus is a school of hard knocks, which feeds into the DNA of a Real Madrid player. A never-say-die attitude is a prerequisite.

"At Real Madrid—in any Real Madrid team—it must always fight until the end, to try to win," he says. "And there are many times that, without the team playing particularly well, they win. So, in the first team, where they are totally professional, the notion of coaching doesn't make any sense because the players are already complete players. They can improve their skills a tiny bit, but what you want is the result. It is a business. You have to win.

"In other academies, the most important thing is the process, not the result. But here in Real Madrid, when I was here, the most important thing was winning. Sure, the player’s coaching is very important—in order to create good habits so when the player gets to the premier division he has a good knowledge of what football is about. ... The two things go together [coaching and winning]. It is not one or the other. The two of them have to happen. I mean, you can train players well, but if you don't win, in here people won’t be happy.”

Pavon learned his trade at La Fabrica's old training ground, Ciudad Deportiva—a plot of land that club president Florentino Perez sold at the turn of the millennium. It was a smart piece of business that helped wipe away club debts of approximately half a billion euros and left the Madrid skyline with four towers. The towers are nicknamed after the galacticos—Luis Figo, Zidane, the Brazilian Ronaldo and David Beckham—signings that defined Perez’s first, eventful stint as president.

Image title

Paco Pavon (back row, third from left) lines up for Real Madrid in 2005 alongside the likes of Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Raul and Ronaldo. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

To offset the expense by Perez of buying so many galactic stars for the team, a string of low-salaried La Fabrica graduates were blooded alongside them, accounting for 12 of the 25-member squad during the 2003-04 season—an increase of 50 percent on the homegrown players featured during the 2000-2002 seasons. Pavon became a byword for them.

"Florentino created this term, 'the Zidanes y Pavones.' It was a policy. On one level, you had the Zidanes and on the other level you had young players like Raul Bravo and myself. I’m from Madrid. That he used my name to represent Real Madrid’s youth academy was incredible."

Pavon was plucked from a group of hopefuls who had played in a weekend tournament in Madrid when he joined La Fabrica in 1990. Each patchwork team of young boys on trial was named after one of the Real Madrid players who had just won five league titles in row. There were teams named "Michel" and "Hugo Sanchez."

Pavon—who grew up in Getafe, a satellite city that has been absorbed into Greater Madrid—arrived at La Fabrica full of nerves. It was tough, he says, although he argues kids today trying to make it have it tougher.

"Right now, I see boys that are 10 or 11 and they already have an agent. So the pressure the boy feels with an agent, with a person that follows him, with the ambition that he can make it—and many of them don't make it—so the kid goes to the field and doesn't enjoy himself. He has a burden like he is being watched all the time. I didn't have that. I enjoyed myself.

"In other academies, the most important thing is the process, not the result. But here in Real Madrid, when I was here, the most important thing was winning."

Paco Pavon

"It was more competitive in the sense that before, I believe, football players weren’t as technically proficient, but today, with those pristine pitches, it is impossible not to be more skilful. Before it was more physical and there was much more contact between players."

The years of Pavon’s childhood were a blur of football, school and homework. Class took up the daytime, followed by a 45-minute lift from his mechanic father to training in the evening (until he was 15 and could take the metro), a late dinner and then bed. "You don’t get to play with your friends in the evening like normal kids. You make a great sacrifice. You’re working from when you’re young."

Image title

Notable La Fabrica graduates Raul, Alvaro Morata, Iker Casillas, Jese and Emilio Butragueno. Artwork by Hannah Carroll.

Training was competitive, a dog-eat-dog world—the exact same as that experienced by Martin 15 years later. Places were always up for grabs. "It is you or it is that other kid," he remembers. "And in the end, your father tells you, 'You have to play better than him; if you don't, it is possible that he continues and not you'; if you want to stay here, you have to compete."

Pavon made the first team at 20, earning a call-up from Vicente del Bosque, who took over as first-team coach in 1999 after years as an academy coach. Del Bosque used to live in an apartment that overlooked Ciudad Deportiva, which enabled him to clock which players arrived early for training. When Pavon began rubbing shoulders with Figo, Roberto Carlos and Raul as a first-team player, he was careful not to get ahead of himself. It had been ingrained in him from the likes of Del Bosque.

"In the football world, you can get paid good money before you make the first team, but in football terms, you haven’t achieved anything so you shouldn’t drive a flash car. In my time, it wouldn't occur to me to buy the car that Raul had even though I could have afforded it from the money I got playing for Castilla.

"It didn’t occur to me because I understand that it is a status thing Raul had gained in football and that I didn’t have yet. If Vicente del Bosque, my coach at the time, saw me with a Porsche, he would have stopped me at the gate and not let me come in. For real. He has done that to players. He wouldn't let them in because those are not the values they want to teach here at Real Madrid."

A tactics board hangs in La Fabrica.

La Fabrica's scouting network spans the globe. The club's romantic lure and galactico image is also a major factor in attracting the best talent. "We have the best players so if you’re 10 or 11 years old you’ll want to be a Real Madrid player," says Pavon.

"Then there is always the player that says, 'Hey, Real Madrid wants me,' but so does another team like, say, Granada or Almeria. They’ll weigh up their options. Maybe the other team will offer the player a lot of money, and Real Madrid won’t, but Real Madrid would be the best place to learn [so he will choose Real Madrid]."

Luis Ramis—who played as a defender for Real Madrid in the early 1990s and worked at La Fabrica from 2006-16—says there isn’t much difference between the style and the quality of the training at Real Madrid and other Spanish club youth academies such as Atletico Madrid, Sevilla or Barcelona.

"For Real Madrid, the important thing is the intention to be in charge, to command the ball, to play in the opponent’s half," he says. "In this, both the canteras [youth academies] of Real Madrid and Barcelona are alike. Both want to be the boss of the game—always to be the protagonist, to attack, to grab the match by the scruff of the neck from the beginning. They train with this intention."

A typical training session at La Fabrica consists of rondos (a piggy-in-the-middle ball-keeping exercise) to warm up, working on transitions from defence to attack, more games to do with ball possession, tactical exercises and culminates in a match—usually involving half the pitch so players get more contact with the ball.

Tactically, the coaches will work on simulating match situations and creating exercises based on hypothetical scenarios. "The exercises will be competitive," says Ramis. "Exercises to do with orientation, passing. We worked a lot on players’ positioning on the pitch, tactics essentially. It all relates to what happens on Sunday, the day of a match."

There is a standard breakdown to the week’s training: Mondays are for recovery work for the guys who played and "compensation work" for the ones who didn't play. Tuesdays are a rest day. Wednesdays and Thursdays bring work on tactics with the ball. "Friday and Saturday," says Ramis, "we would do shooting, turning, actions with the eyes. All of it related to the tactics that were worked on the previous Wednesday and Thursday."

La Fabrica's vast gym facility.

La Fabrica's long history dates back to the 1950s. The academy supplied several players, including Juan Santisteban, who helped a dominant Madrid side win four of their five consecutive European Cups at the trail end of the decade. They delivered three Spanish internationals that helped lift the 1966 European Cup, one of them being Manolo Sanchis.

Sanchis' son and namesake was one of the Quinta del Buitre—five dashing young La Fabrica cadets who dazzled the Bernabeu stadium in the 1980s. Sanchis captained the club to its seventh European Cup triumph in 1998, a crown it had waited for 32 years to secure.

Several more famous graduates have followed over the last couple of decades, including Raul and Iker Casillas. From today's team you have the marauding full-back Dani Carvajal, who was selected as a 12-year-old to represent the academy at the ceremony to lay the first stone at Valdebebas in May 2004.

Image title

Carvajal, aged 12, lays the stone at La Fabrica in 2004 with Alfredo Di Stefano. 

Despite these illustrious alumni, and others, La Fabrica is in the shadow of Barcelona’s vaunted cantera, La Masia, which only came to life in 1979.

La Masia, of course, featured seven of the players who helped Spain win the 2010 World Cup final in Johannesburg—Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Pedro and second-half substitute Cesc Fabregas, and also produced Lionel Messi, who joined as a 13-year-old in 2001.

Each year over the last decade, La Masia has provided more first-team squad players for its club than La Fabrica: 12 compared to seven (2007-2008); 11 to seven (2008-2009); 11 to four (2009-2010); 12 to six (2010-2011); 11 to five (2011-2012); 17 to five (2012-2013); 17 to nine (2013-2014); 12 to seven (2014-2015); 12 to seven (2015-2016); and 10 to eight (2016-2017).

Real Madrid’s youth academy fares better in Spain, though. This season, 41 players from La Fabrica are playing with squads in the premier division of La Liga, compared to 30 from La Masia—a ratio that is repeated in the second division of La Liga: 28 (Real Madrid) and 21 (Barca). Over the long haul, La Fabrica has a more prolific output of professional footballers. But Barca has long won a propaganda war, it seems.

Image title

Carvajal in action for Real Madrid against Athletic Bilbao this season. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

"Somehow La Masia has become an internationally recognised brand, whereas La Fabrica at Valdebebas is not known so much," says Phil Kitromilides, who works as a presenter for Real Madrid TV. "Of course, it’s logical that La Masia became a big thing when you have six or seven world-class players—who are winning everything—all come through like that at the same time. It was a freak.

"Real Madrid’s international renown is for spending more money [than Barcelona]. That weighs against them in terms of people’s perception of their youth policy because people will always think, 'Ah, Real Madrid, they just go out and blow big money on the biggest players,' even though there are a number of first-team squad players that have come through recently—such as Jese, who was sold to PSG this summer for €25 million, Alvaro Morata, Carvajal, Nacho, Lucas Vazquez, Casemiro—but people won’t think about that."


All sources gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated.