It is rare when a Real Madrid victory in the European Cup does not make the front page of the sports dailies in the Spanish capital.
On Sept. 17 1980, Vujadin Boskov’s Madrid scraped a 2-1 victory against lowly Limerick, the reigning champions of the Irish league. Yet the newspapers did not go to print the following day adorned with images of Laurie Cunningham or Juanito — because Madrid’s little brother had tiptoed in to the limelight.
Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s “B” team, beat Athletic Club, Real Sociedad, and Sporting Gijon in a run that took them to the final of the 1980 Copa del Rey. As fate would have it, the Real Madrid first team were their opponents. The first team won 6-1, but as Boskov’s outfit had already won La Liga, Castilla snuck in to the European Cup.
“Super Castilla,” beamed the front page of Diario AS on Sept. 18 1980, the day after the youngsters had beaten West Ham on their European debut. They ultimately lost the tie, but the juice of the story lay in their journey to reach that point.
Castilla are in a less healthy position 27 years later, as they brace themselves for a skirmish against relegation in the Segunda B, Spain’s regionalised third tier. A 2-0 defeat to Pontevedra at the weekend places Castilla — managed by former Madrid player Santiago Solari — just two points above the relegation zone. Their last five matches have yielded just one victory.
With Zinedine Zidane’s first team basking in the glory of consecutive Champions League victories, there is a temptation to ask: “And? Why does it matter?”
It matters because Castilla are the integral component on the production line that brings players through La Fabrica — Real Madrid’s productive academy — to the pitch at the Bernabeu. In spite of their brief foray in to the public consciousness in the early 1980s, Castilla’s primary role is the latter-stage formation and development of players for the first team.
Dani Carvajal, Nacho, Alvaro Morata and Lucas Vazquez have graduated from Castilla in recent years and made an impact on the first team. Achraf is the latest debutant to have stepped off the production line.
Tomas Roncero, the editor of the Real Madrid section of Diario AS and a passionate supporter to the extent that he is filmed during matches to see his reactions, has seen fit to comment on Castilla’s slump
“Castilla have an obligation that runs through the DNA of the club, to compete to the maximum and search for the same excellence that we always ask of the first team,” he wrote. That initially seems contradictory to his acknowledgement in the same article that Castilla’s “No.1 mission” is to hone players in preparation for a place in the first team. After all, the cultivation of a win-at-all-costs mentality is not always conducive to individual player development. Yet Real Madrid are an exception. Victory is an expectation, and Castilla must share that mentality to ensure that when young players graduate to the first team, they have the temperament to deal with the pressure placed upon them.
Several members of the Castilla cohort have moved up from the Under-19 team managed by Guti. The midfielder dictated play throughout a 15-year spell at Madrid, with his blonde mane flowing close behind him. He nurtured an image as a man who enjoyed life, stating at the age of 32 in 2009 that: “I don’t see myself in nightclubs when I’m 60, I see myself in them now.”
Guti has ostensibly mellowed with his transition into coaching, and is held in high esteem by both Real Madrid and the media. His “Juvenil A” side completed the double in the 2016-17 season, winning both the Youth Champions Cup and the Copa del Rey.
“We aim as high as possible, and it would be stupid for me to say that managing the first team at Madrid is not my objective,” he admitted earlier this year.
Castilla is the logical next step for the 40-year-old on that path to the coveted Bernabeu bench.
Regardless of whether Guti progresses to Castilla, it is imperative they avoid relegation to the 360-team, 18-group fourth division. Like stepping in to quicksand, it is easy to slip in to and incredibly difficult get out of.
The gap between Castilla and the Real Madrid first team is already difficult for homegrown players to bridge. The difference between the two levels is vast. If the “B” team were to descend further down the pyramid, that difference would expand to the point of being insurmountable.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC’s Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93